OPINION — This was the point. This was always the point of the “Year of the Woman,” in 1992 and every election year since then. To have women at the table, to have women as a part of the process in the government we live by every day. Women still aren’t serving in Congress in the numbers they should be, but it is at moments like this one — with a nominee, an accusation, and a Supreme Court seat in the balance — where electing women to office matters.
When Anita Hill told an all-male panel of senators in 1991 that Clarence Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her when she had worked with him years before, the senators on the all-male Judiciary Committee seemed to put Hill on trial instead of Thomas. Why didn’t she quit her job and get another one, they asked. Why did she speak to him again? Why didn’t she come forward and say something about Thomas sooner if he was such a flawed nominee?
Without a woman on that committee, real justice for Anita Hill seemed impossible to the millions of women across the country watching it unfold. The next year, those same women voted and sent women to Washington in record numbers to change the face of Congress.
One of the women elected was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who 27 years later is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee deciding the fate of Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his path to the Supreme Court. Seemingly on a glide path to the court as late as last week, Kavanaugh now stands accused of attempted rape by professor Christine Blasey Ford. She has described an incident from a time more than 35 years ago when she and Kavanaugh were both drinking at a high school party, but where he was “stumbling drunk.” Ford said she never spoke of the event until marriage counseling decades later, but went to The Washington Post in July when Kavanagh seemed to be on the short list for the high court.
Watch: If Kavanaugh Lied to Committee That Would Be “Disqualifying,” Collins Says
Did the night happen as she says it did? Was Kavanaugh even at the party at all? Are we now going back to high school to decide nominees’ fates? Is that fair or even possible? They’re difficult questions without easy answers, but unlike 1991, the outcome will have the input of women sent to the Senate specifically for moments like this.
Ford first took her allegations to Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who shared them with Feinstein. Feinstein reached out to speak with Ford the next day after she read her account of events. Feinstein has been pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike for not sharing those accusations sooner, but Ford had asked Feinstein specifically to keep her identity private. Respecting Ford’s wishes, Feinstein agreed. With decades of experience on the committee, Feinstein made what she thought was the right call.
But after The Intercept reported last week that the senator had an accusation in hand against Kavanaugh and had not shared it widely with the committee, Ford told her story to Emma Brown at The Washington Post, which revealed her identity and the details of the night she says Kavanaugh attacked her.
Republicans, of all people, should know that women will be judging not just the allegations against Kavanaugh, but also how they as a party treat both the judge and the professor. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell focused on the timing of the news and the age of the allegations, seeming to blame Feinstein for the time table. “It is an accusation that the ranking member has known about for six weeks, known about for six weeks, but chose to keep … private,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
President Donald Trump pointed the blame at Feinstein, too. “[Kavanaugh] spent quite a bit of time with Sen. Feinstein, and it wasn’t even brought up at this meeting,” he said. “You would have thought that she would have brought it up.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was a member of the Judiciary Committee in 1991, told CNN that he had not spoken with Ford, but he believes Kavanaugh’s denial. “I talked to him on the phone. He said he wasn’t at the party, that someone is mixed up,” Hatch said, adding later, “I think she’s mistaken somehow.”
The accuser is confused. The timing is suspicious. It’s all Feinstein’s fault. These are all the words of Republicans who don’t get it, who have no understanding of what it takes for a woman to come forward to tell her story under any circumstances, let alone a politically charged, take-no-prisoners viper pit that Supreme Court nominations have become.
Letting her be heard
The Republicans who have struck a reasonable, responsible tone are — are we surprised? — women. Kellyanne Conway moved early to telegraph, most likely to her fellow Republicans, that Ford’s story should not be buried, mocked or dismissed. “This woman should be heard,” she said. “This woman should not be insulted and should not be ignored.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins said the only fair process for both Ford and Kavanaugh would be an open hearing, a crucial statement that virtually guaranteed that any hearing that happened would be in public, as it should be. “There are an awful lot of questions, inconsistencies, gaps, and that’s why to be fair to both, we need to know what happened,” she said.
Nobody other than the people in that room 37 years ago knows what happened between Kavanaugh and Ford. But Ford’s memory of that night is detailed and disturbing. The country needs to hear more from both of them in a process that is respectful and transparent for the next Supreme Court justice to have the credibility the job requires. Thanks to women in the Senate, that process is now moving forward.
And like 1992, female voters will be waiting at the polls to render their own judgement about the way the Senate handled the Kavanaugh nomination and the accusations from a woman against him.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.