Editor’s Note: This piece is one of two responses to the confirmation proceedings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court published today on the Berkeley Public Policy Journal site. It addresses what the Kavanaugh confirmation process means for American women and what it reiterates from the 1991 Anita Hill hearings. In a separate piece, Tim Tsai assesses the implications of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on judicial legitimacy.
By Sarah Edwards, Emily Estus, Emma Kaplan, Nandita Sampath
Many of the students at the Goldman School of Public Policy were too young to witness Professor Anita Hill’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1991, Professor Hill — a young, Black woman — sat in front of a panel composed exclusively of old, white men to testify at the hearings for Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. Under the prying, invasive, and aggressive questioning of the Committee, Hill spoke with grace and composure. Because she is Black, Hill had to project strength and poise, rather than acting vulnerable or likable as Christine Blasey Ford would be expected to 26 years later. Research shows that Black women are judged far more harshly and are perceived as less innocent than white women, and Hill was no exception.
As the Thomas hearings progressed, women across the U.S. watched, wrote letters, called their Senators, and organized. In a full-page New York Times ad, 1,600 Black women signed their support for Anita Hill and in “defense of themselves.” Despite Hill’s testimony and the outrage that followed, Thomas was confirmed. Women were not surprised.
We are now almost two years into the Donald Trump presidency. The President — a product of an elite and rarefied environment of wealth and privilege — has nominated a man credibly accused of sexual assault to sit on the highest court in the United States. The President has nominated someone in whom he undoubtedly sees a lot of himself. Judge Brett Kavanaugh — like the President, a product of an elite and rarefied environment of wealth and privilege — is just two swing Senate votes away from sitting on our nation’s highest bench. We should not be surprised.
Brett Kavanaugh grew up in the 1980s in a wealthy Washington, DC suburb. In the environment in which he was raised, toxic masculinity was not just tolerated — it was the norm. In 1983, Kavanaugh wrote barely-disguised vulgarities in his senior yearbook that debased women. Georgetown Prep, the school he attended, allowed him to do so. In that same period of time, Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
The accusations against Kavanaugh did not end when he left DC and stepped into the future that those around him had so carefully laid out for him. Recent accusations have shown that Kavanaugh’s patterns of harassment and assault continued through his college years at Yale University. In the context of his history, it is hardly surprising Judge Kavanaugh has a reputation for purposefully and consistently hiring female law clerks who “look like models” and dress in an “outgoing” fashion.
Women across the country and here at the Goldman School have been overwhelmed by the accusations against Kavanaugh and the subsequent national reaction. We have been shocked by the farce of his hearings, including his blatant lies and the Senators who overlook them. If Kavanaugh had taken responsibility for his actions, acknowledged the possibility of their occurrence, and apologized to Dr. Ford, we still would not want him on the Supreme Court. But we might recognize that he had come to terms with his despicable and illegal behavior, and we would be heartened in some measure by the small steps we as a nation have taken since 1991.
Instead, Kavanaugh belittled Dr. Ford’s accusations, cried foul, and spun conspiracy theories. He furiously erased the truth of his past and asked women and men across the United States to sympathize with him, believe him, and protect him. We are not surprised.
Even setting aside the alarming sexual harassment accusations, Kavanaugh’s testimony showed the world that he simply does not have the temperament to be on the Supreme Court. When questioned about his drinking habits in high school and college, he became hostile and derisive. He responded to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s question about whether he had ever blacked out due to alcohol with, “I don’t know. Have you?” During his testimony, Kavanaugh frequently yelled, cried, and lied about trivial matters. Had he been a woman, similar behavior would have been critiqued as “hysterical” and his credibility would have been severely diminished. His tantrums, blatant chauvinism, and disrespect toward his interrogators were wholly unfitting and demonstrate an inability to perform the duties of a Supreme Court justice in an even-handed manner.
Supreme Court justices are not elected by the public; they are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The President and Senate, therefore, must require the highest possible standards for anyone they consider for the role. The public must demand the same. In replacing the Court’s swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, Kavanaugh may very well be the tipping point for critical cases regarding women’s rights, immigration, and other pertinent social issues. His testimony has prevented many from viewing him as an impartial judge. He stated that Ford’s accusations were a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” by the Democrats stemming from their anger over the 2016 presidential election. Kavanaugh’s privileged upbringing, elite education, and unchallenged career ascent have led him to believe that he has an unassailable right to become a justice on the highest court in the United States. He sees Ford and the Democrats as obstacles that do not have the right to stand in his way. But appointment to the Supreme Court is a right afforded to no one; it is a privilege that should be extended only to the most qualified candidate who demonstrates integrity, decency, and the ability to interpret the Constitution in a fair and consistent manner. Kavanaugh has disqualified himself in many ways, none more obvious than his angry, screaming challenges in the face of legitimate questioning. His testimony was blatantly partisan and wholly divorced from reality. If appointed, he would undermine public perception of the Supreme Court as a detached and impartial body.
Finally, we must consider how Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court would irrevocably alter the trajectory of women’s standing in America. That Kavanaugh would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade — and we know he doesn’t consider it settled law — is deeply concerning. It would be tempting to soothe our fears by telling ourselves that a very wide, very red gulf separates California from Washington, that the Supreme Court will rebalance over time, and that our bodies are safe from what old men in black robes believe to be the God-given purpose of women. But if the entire American judiciary shifts to the right, none of us is immune.
The potential for a reversal of Roe threatens the reproductive health of women in every state, regardless of how insulated we may feel. Even in California, a woman’s right to choose is slowly being degraded. Governor Jerry Brown, for instance, recently vetoed a bill that would have mandated the availability of abortion services on every UC and CSU campus. As litigation over state-specific abortion battles wends its way to the Supreme Court, reproductive health access could easily become an impossibility to many women, especially low-income women unable to travel across state lines.
But while this fear understandably occupies the forefront of our minds, something more insidious is happening to our hearts — namely, internalizing and accepting as valid the rampant animosity towards women that has been teeming across the country in recent weeks. If you’ve ever doubted that we live in a world dominated by rape culture, here’s your proof: not only do we let accused perpetrators off the hook with a “boys will be boys” mentality, we elect and appoint them to the highest offices in the land.
When Anita Hill stood before Congress despite rampant sexism and racism, women rose up. So many women took action and ran for office that 1992 was called “The Year of the Woman.” Now, just over two decades later, the same words headline articles lauding the number of women running for elected office and fighting to take matters into their own hands. As inspiring as that fight is, has this recurrence of history shown us anything aside from the fact that we have not moved forward since 1991? Hasn’t current history only reiterated that the word and worth of a man are still valued over those of a woman?
Since 1991, a man credibly accused of sexual harassment has sat on the Court, deciding judicial rulings and defining laws. One is too many. One is unthinkable. Yet, in 2018, we are on the brink of putting a second man credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment on our nation’s highest court. If all goes as expected and Kavanaugh forces his way onto the Supreme Court bench, it will only be the latest confirmation: the patriarchy always strikes back.
Sarah Edwards, Emily Estus, Emma Kaplan, and Nandita Sampath are Master of Public Policy candidates at the Goldman School of Public Policy and active members of the student group Women in Public Policy (WiPP).