To mark the end of 2018, we asked writers to revisit some of the year’s most noteworthy (for good or evil) events, people and ideas. See the other entries here between now and the new year.
The vote was bad enough. Sending a man the majority of Americans believe to have sexually assaulted someone to the court, conferring supreme judicial power to a second fabulist accused of sexual misconduct. Granting this man decisive power over the nation’s current and future female bodies. Swinging open the door for the real backlash against women’s outrage. But she not only sold out women’s bodies to confirm a Supreme Court justice selected explicitly to imprison them in enforced pregnancies: She dressed that vote up as a feminist call to arms.
Sen. Susan Collins could have simply, quietly, disappointingly voted to confirm this man. Instead, she ostentatiously wrapped her confirmation in a false feminine bow, grandstanding on the Senate floor for nearly 45 minutes. She dressed head to toe in taupe, the color of neutrality, and told women that the lesson of Christine Blasey Ford’s lasting trauma is that if Brett Kavanaugh committed such crimes on her 15-year-old body, Ford should have reported it.
Collins, Our Lady of Perpetual Moral Bankruptcy, droned on about how many survivors’ stories she’d heard over the preceding days, aligning herself with the popular rhetoric around believing women. Just not this one, she painstakingly attempted to explain, using debunked junk science, disregarding any credible neuropsychology about how trauma affects memory ― the very science Ford teaches at the university level, and which she explained patiently through her own testimony as her own expert witness.
“Collins could have simply, quietly, disappointingly voted to confirm this man. Instead, she ostentatiously wrapped her confirmation in a false feminine bow.”
It’s perhaps the ultimate anti-woman double-sided coin, to simultaneously dismiss both a woman’s expertise and her story. Blithely rejecting both her academic rigor and her sworn testimony ― whose hand was over her mouth, whose face pressed up against hers, whose cruel laughter rang forever in her ears, what she testified she was 100 percent certain about.
These days, such offenses against women must be prettied up in fake feminism. Collins paired her dismissal of Ford’s trauma with a cri de coeur, calling for increased reporting of sexual harassment and assault. “We must listen to survivors, and every day we must seek to stop the criminal behavior that has hurt so many,” she said. “We owe this to ourselves, our children, and generations to come” ― so long as it’s politically expedient.
Watching Ford’s hours of detailed, self-critical testimony, millions of us sat suspended in fear that our elected officials would not believe her. But then a worse fear crept in: that they would believe her, and it wouldn’t matter.
The best argument Collins could find for disbelieving Ford was a theory that one of Kavanaugh’s friends, Ed Whelan, the president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, had floated on Twitter: Sure, she was sexually assaulted, but she must have the wrong guy. Almost immediately, Whelan apologized for this “appalling and inexcusable” lack of judgment in suggesting such a thing, and offered his resignation. But that appalling and inexcusable theory was exactly what Collins cited to tear Ford down and make the case that women must feel empowered to report their own assaults. That’s how incredible her disbelief is. And how cynical her politics.
The brutal truth is that her cynicism paid off. After Collins voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act, her standing among Maine’s Republicans was shaky. After condemning Ford and confirming Kavanaugh, she won back their support. It’s a scourge of our age, and of the ages: women whose politics are dictated by the power of their white skin rather than the power denied to their organs.
And yet, as she sent an accused sexual assailant to the Supreme Court, Collins played the role of a woman warrior behind enemy lines. “Over the past few weeks, I have been emphatic that the Senate has an obligation to investigate and evaluate the serious allegations of sexual assault,” she said. But later that month, she was silent when The Washington Post published a report on what sexual harassment looks like in the Senate.
On Capitol Hill, the report said, it’s career-killing to report an offense. And in the exceedingly unlikely cases when victims do, they’re required to go through 30 days of counseling. They may only file lawsuits if they agree first to participate in months of mediation. Should they win out after that process, they’ll be paid a settlement not from the abuser’s own funds, or that person’s office’s, but from a special account the Treasury maintains. And the man who set up this entire process? None other than Collins’ colleague Chuck Grassley, who played the role of embodied villainous patriarchy in the Ford hearings.
“Watching Ford’s testimony, millions of us sat suspended in fear that our elected officials would not believe her. But then a worse fear crept in: that they would believe her, and it wouldn’t matter.”
Hill staffers may remain muzzled by structures established and maintained by our own lawmakers, but increasingly the rest of us aren’t. Collins’ specious, lengthy and unnecessary diatribe against Ford’s testimony hasn’t taught America women that their stories are not to be trusted. On the contrary, a spokesperson from RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S., told me that in the month following the Kavanaugh hearings, the assault and harassment reporting hotline was flooded by 27,000 calls, up by nearly a third from the 20,000 calls it received the year before, when the stories about Harvey Weinstein began our national silence-breaking.
The shameful ― and shamefully effective ― cynicism of Collins’ politicking is uniquely insidious in this insidious year. Just as shameful are the women who listened to her speech and nodded along. Listen to survivors, yes, yes, but due process. Of course, but credibility issues. Yes, but taupe. It was a typically male, Republican, by-any-means-necessary power grab translated for the Junior League. Sham facts for our real pain.
One day, very soon, the Supreme Court will agree to hear a case that slashes women’s control over their own bodies and futures “for generations to come,” robbing agency even beyond how Kavanaugh stripped away Ford’s. When it does, let’s not forget the senator who was most complicit in delivering this specious jurist. And how she applied lipstick to her lip service, pretending, as she did it, that she stood for our country’s daughters and granddaughters.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.