Kavanaugh Thought Privilege Would Get Him Through. Blasey Ford Stopped Him In His Tracks
For much of the past, the high-profile allegations of sexual abuse or rape happened between men and their female subordinates. Think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the maid who accused him of rape, or Bill Clinton and Juanita Broderick or Paula Jones, Arkansas state employees when he was governor (or Monica Lewinsky, the intern to his president), or Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who has been his subordinate at work.
But today, America was treated to a new spectacle: a woman belonging to the same class as the man she accused of abusing her gave compelling, poised testimony about the crime she says he committed when they were teenagers.
Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee today against President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, federal judge Brett Kavanaugh. And she did so as an accomplished professor, every bit his equal in class, education, and privilege. She had even socialized in the same Washington prep-school circles as Kavanaugh.
Ford is not the only one. Deborah Ramirez, a second accuser, attended Yale with Kavanaugh. And a third witness to Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual abuse, Julie Swetnick, has held security clearances from the government’s most powerful agencies, including the Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service, and Department of Homeland Security.
It’s this class equality between accuser and accused that makes their testimony credible to the very people and rules Kavanaugh is appealing to to vindicate him. That old boys club of Georgetown Prep and Yale Law School, which for generations has protected white male privilege, now includes women — including Kavanaugh’s accusers.
And they are much harder to dismiss than subordinates.
What the #MeToo movement opened up and what the Kavanaugh hearings furthered is not a gender war or even class war; it’s intra-class war. It’s the lifting of women who are privileged, women who have attended the same schools and gone to the same parties and lived in the same neighborhoods as the men who sexually assaulted them.
Their privilege will ultimately dismantle the whole system of privilege altogether. It’s the beginning of that process that we witnessed on Thursday.
Once, powerful men who were inclined towards sexual assault could dependably rely on the power of their money and the intimidation of their social networks for silence. If they were inclined to sexual assault, they steadily targeted women they saw as vulnerable: assistants, masseuses, young and inexperienced women eager to rise and get a foothold in cutthroat industries. Then they manipulated and blackmailed those women into becoming their victims. The late Roger Ailes was a master of this.
This made women easy to dismiss — alien creatures who never belonged on male turf and could easily be kicked off it with a mere word. The lower class and economic status of women in male-dominated industries made it easy for abusive men to dismiss victims as “bimbos,” or “sluts” looking for a payday. Former President Bill Clinton’s adviser Betsey Wright infamously dubbed the sexual assault allegations against Clinton “bimbo eruptions,” a benchmark moment in establishing the language to systematically target and discredit women.
But that doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t work when the accusers are Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, millionaires in their own right, and it doesn’t work when it’s Dr. Blasey Ford, who has more degrees and education than all the men in the Senate questioning her.
That didn’t stop Kavanaugh from trying. In between crying out, “I am innocent of this charge” over and over again, Kavanaugh brought up again and again his Yale undergraduate degree, his Yale Law degree, his place on the Georgetown Prep basketball team, and how he “worked his butt off” “with no connections” to get where he was in life — an account his powerful father might see differently.
What Kavanaugh was doing was not just fighting to keep his nomination or his reputation. He was fighting to preserve his privilege, his place in the elite upper middle class establishment into which he was born and had always belonged without question.
After all, class is not just about economic standing. It’s shorthand for a kind of credibility based on group belonging. At one time, that credibility and belonging would have been extended automatically to Kavanaugh based on where he went to school and the jobs he had held. Indeed, for the first five decades of his life, it did.
And it was to those old rules that he was appealing in his testimony.
The only problem is, the old boys club where those rules only applied to men is no more. There are women with the same kind of privilege. And Dr. Blasey Ford is one of them.
Before Kavanaugh was reduced to shouting repeatedly in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about how he had “worked his butt off” for his Yale degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced Dr. Blasey Ford to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a long, admiring accounting of her accomplishments: Chapel Hill for undergrad, two master’s degrees, a PhD, teaching affiliations with Stanford and USC.
While giving her account to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Blasey Ford, in her quiet, gracious and authentic manner, reinforced how impressive she was as she not only spoke about her experience in a notably hostile room, but also shared her academic understanding of how traumatic memories are chemically encoded in the hippocampus.
While news story after news story described Kavanaugh as a “mean drunk,” notable in their social circle for his especially boorish behavior, the women who accused him found highly educated, highly accomplished supporters writing open letters: hundreds of alumnae of Holton-Arms, Yale University, and Yale Law School faculty.
Meanwhile, despite (one) letter of support of his own — solicited before the explosive allegations became public — men and women who knew Kavanaugh, including his freshman-year roommate and doctors who had been in his social circle, supported the characters of Dr. Blasey Ford and Ramirez. They painted Kavanaugh as a bad seed, creepy and abusive.
In fact, the privilege of the accusers has been a facet of the #MeToo movement from the beginning. For men who are used to women existing only in subordinate positions, the realization came as a shock that their accusers now are women who have their own prestige, their own money, their own expansive social networks, their own elite standing.
These women command respect for their accomplishments and support for their characters. Blasey Ford earned her credentials in a man’s world; even to the most aggressive supporters of Brett Kavanaugh, she cannot be taken lightly. She is a serious person.
It is notable that the Senate did not call Mark Judge, who was in the room at the time of the alleged assault, likely because Judge, a hard-drinking slacker who has praised “the power of male passion” is less accomplished and credible than the woman who has named him as a witness.
What we are seeing now, after 6,000 years of history, is the first growth of establishment privilege and credibility extending to women, an equal and opposite force of social belonging and wealth that has for the past two years been instrumental in steadily removing abusive men from positions of power. It has consisted not just of women rallying around other women, but supportive men rallying around women as well.
The united front has rendered powerful men suddenly vulnerable, and they are taking it badly. Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, John Hockenberry, Jian Ghomeshi — all could not be more angry and put out at their exclusion from a world they believed they were the gatekeepers for.
Kavanaugh complained bitterly during the hearing that he would never work again. Kavanaugh, who Christine Blasey Ford recounted laughed “uproariously” while assaulting her to show off for a friend, doesn’t like to be excluded or laughed at. He lamented that he could find no support, his friends were “vilified” for backing him, and he shouted at [Senator] Dick Durbin for “mocking” him.
So it is when a man’s position is threatened. And in 2018, it is only an equally privileged woman who could do such a thing.
This is only the very beginning. The real test of progress, of course, is whether women will be believed when they report sexual assault regardless of how they make their money or where they live or where they were educated.
We’re nowhere near that yet. Considering how many of these assaults happened when these accomplished women were still unestablished and vulnerable, there’s a lot of room to improve in believing women early, even when their resumés are not as long and their connections not as wide as those of their accusers.
All women deserve to be believed. But it is the women of privilege who will get us there.
Heidi N Moore is a longtime business editor and digital media advisor. Her reporting and columns have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the Washington Post and the Columbia Journalism Review.