On Thursday morning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor that oozed with smarmy righteousness. “The uncorroborated mud and partisan noise and the physical intimidation of members will not have the final say around here,” he said, in reference to the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The physical intimidation.
I don’t usually pay much attention to the ravings of craven ghouls, but this line stood out. What ever could he be referring to? Which members of the Senate had been physically intimidated? And then it clicked. McConnell was talking about the survivors of sexual assault who had walked alongside him in an airport and asked if he believed survivors.
“Sen. McConnell, why do women have to bare their whole soul to you?” one of the women asked as he ignored them and turned to shake a white man’s hand. In that moment, he saw himself as the victim.
Similar scenes played out all over the nation this week. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) was also confronted in an airport by survivors, this time on an escalator. He went into a men’s bathroom to escape them. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told a rape survivor who confronted him in a hallway to ask if he believed her to “go to the cops.” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was cornered in an elevator and forced to look into the eyes of the women who yelled at him. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was challenged by two women who walked alongside him at an airport to tell them how he would support survivors of sexual violence. “I know this is enjoyable to y’all,” he said. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) literally shooed female protesters away as they approached him, urging them to “grow up.”
This week I kept coming back to a historical anecdote that opens Good and Mad, Rebecca Traister’s new book on women’s anger. The year was 1972, the place the Democratic National Convention. The National Women’s Political Caucus was at odds with the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, and his campaign over a controversial abortion plank that these women had fought hard to ensure would be in the Democratic Party platform. McGovern had let them down, even inviting an anti-abortion activist to speak. As Nora Ephron described the scene in an essay published at the time, Gloria Steinem yelled through her tears at McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, “You promised us you would not take the low road, you bastards.”
Later, she spoke to Ephron about her deep frustration with men in power, crying again. “It’s just that they won’t take us seriously,” she said. “And I’m just tired of being screwed.”
It is 2018, not 1972, and women are still tired of being screwed by the powerful, who are still predominantly rich, straight, white men. When even a woman like Christine Blasey Ford ― someone practically precision-engineered to win the sympathy of conservatives, the “perfect” victim, as was too often said — could not break through to Republicans, something fundamentally shifted.
The day after Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila confronted Flake as he entered an elevator. The two women shared their stories of having been raped, revealing details they had not shared with their own families, and refused to let him ignore them.
“Don’t look away from me!” yelled Gallagher. “Look at me and tell me it doesn’t matter what happened to me.”
The footage went viral, and just hours later, Flake called for a one-week delay in the final confirmation vote to allow for an FBI investigation limited in time and scope. No, this encounter and his actions did not change Kavanaugh’s likely confirmation. But it changed the conversation, opening up more space for more women and their allies to try something more radical to force their elected officials to really, truly, maybe listen.
On Thursday, I couldn’t stop thinking about a line Reese Witherspoon’s character says in “Big Little Lies”: “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
I’ve begun looking at my rage with that same deliberate affection. Women are told by the culture that rage is ugly and unfeminine.
But as Traister argues in Good and Mad, what is worse for women than being angry is dampening that anger, pushing it down and never giving it proper expression. “What is good for us is opening our mouths and letting it out, permitting ourselves to feel it and say it and think it and act on it and integrate it into our lives, and the daily expression of our thoughts and experiences,” she writes.
This integration will not ― and cannot ― look the same for every woman. No survivor is obligated to tell her story publicly (or at all), and certainly not in the ways we’ve seen in recent days. It’s amazing that this even needs to be said explicitly, but it should not be incumbent on women to perform their pain on the off chance that someone powerful will choose to give a shit. But the lesson of the past two weeks is that a straightforward appeal to the conscience of conservatives is a losing proposition. A more radical approach is needed now. Anger won a weeklong delay. Confrontation made tomorrow’s yeas just a little more expensive.
“Feel it in your fists. To others who understand what the sinking pit is like, I’d urge you to do the same. Grasp that anger, that fury, that rage, and feel it burning in your fists.”
Confrontational activism is so effective because it is so personal. It involves entering someone’s immediate space. It involves a demand that the powerful individual see the person confronting him (or her) and listen ― even if he (or she) doesn’t want to. “The lesson from my elevator confrontation is that when we force political leaders to connect with us, with our humanity, we can breathe life into democracy,” Archila said in a statement on Friday morning.
And isn’t that what women’s rights activists have been screaming from the rooftops for decades? The personal is political, and the political is personal. Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation is no different. It will likely personally affect nearly every marginalized group in this nation.
It feels fitting that the final blow to the anti-Kavanaugh resistance came on Oct. 5, when resident nice white lady Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced she would be voting yes on the nominee, exactly one year after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s first report on Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was published in The New York Times. Three hundred sixty-five days later, women’s stories are out there. The curtain has been ripped away, and what’s behind it is ugly and horrible and true.
The overwhelming feeling of many women who fought Kavanaugh’s confirmation is one of exhaustion and even existential despair. This is understandable. But give that grief time to settle and then tend to what’s likely living just underneath it: anger, fury, rage.
I was talking to my therapist this week about how frustrating and depleting living through the last two weeks ― and covering them professionally ― has been. She urged me to try something different instead of experiencing my rage and despair as a sinking pit in my chest. She told me to “feel it in your fists.”
Feel it in your fists. To others who understand what the sinking pit is like, I’d urge you to do the same. Grasp that anger, that fury, that rage, and feel it burning in your fists. November is coming.