When many conservative women around the country watched Christine Blasey Ford appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, they didn’t find her testimony compelling or convincing, as many liberals did.
They saw a political farce.
“Honestly, I don’t think I have ever been so angry in all of my adult life,” says Ginger Howard, a Republican national committeewoman from Georgia. “It brings me to the point of tears, it makes me so angry.”
In interviews with roughly a dozen female conservative leaders from as many states, this was the overwhelming sentiment: These women are infuriated with the way the sexual-assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have been handled. They are not convinced by Ford or any other woman who has come forward. They resent the implication that all women should support the accusers. And they believe that this scandal will ultimately hurt the cause of women who have been sexually assaulted.
Above all, these women, and the women they know, are ready to lash out against Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.
Nearly all the women I spoke with are plugged into state- and local-level conservative politics. Their collective, overwhelming sense is that, like Howard, women voters are angry about what’s happening to Kavanaugh. “I’ve got women in my church who were not politically active at all who were incensed with this,” says Melody Potter, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Republican Party—the first woman to hold that position, she made sure to point out. In her state, the stakes of the Kavanaugh scandal are immense: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is fighting for his seat in a place where more than two-thirds of voters supported Donald Trump in 2016. With voters “energized” to elect people “who are going to support President Trump,” Potter says, West Virginians are closely watching how Manchin acts on Kavanaugh—especially now that the situation has become so politicized.
Organizers in other states say they’ve been hearing the same thing. “People in Indiana are angry. They are mad. They are changing their mind,” says Jodi Smith, the Indianapolis-based state director for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. When Senator Joe Donnelly, another vulnerable Democrat who is up for reelection in November, declared late last week that he would vote against Kavanaugh, it “started a firestorm of epic proportions,” Smith says. From her perspective on the ground in a highly contested swing state, “this is one of the best things that could happen to us.”
It’s not yet clear whether the Kavanaugh affair will work to the GOP’s advantage; recent polling has not conclusively shown what women, for example, think about these allegations. “If the Republicans don’t get it together and make sure that he gets in there, that’s not going to help us,” says Howard, the Georgia RNC official. “What makes me mad at times about our party is we don’t stand up enough and say, ‘Enough of your shenanigans! We’re not putting up with this!’” And with the full Senate vote delayed and a supplemental FBI investigation under way, it’s not certain that Kavanaugh’s nomination will ultimately be successful.
But if Kavanaugh is confirmed, Howard says, “that will fire up the base even more to say, ‘Look at what a fight we had on our hands.’”
The women I interviewed are, for the most part, committed conservatives. In a controversy that has been so deeply politicized, it isn’t necessarily surprising that they’re skeptical of Ford, a woman who was guided by Senate Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, and who may hurt Republican interests. But they all asserted that their convictions—and their disgust—go beyond their partisan commitments.
“I believe, with every fiber of my being, that he is telling the truth,” Howard says. “Not just because I’m conservative, and not just because I’m Republican. I believe that he is telling the truth.”
A big source of conservative women’s anger about Kavanaugh seems to come from a fundamental sense of unfairness: They believe Kavanaugh was convicted in the court of public opinion before he ever had a chance to defend himself. Howard told me that every cable-news network seemed strongly biased against the judge: She was watching NBC at a work event, and “the anchors … were just praising this woman like she was the next Rosa Parks or something,” she says. “I mean, I was screaming at the TV.”
Last week’s hearing was not part of a criminal investigation, “but you sure wouldn’t know that from watching,” says Smith, the Indiana activist. The 62-year-old calls herself “a Mike Pence girl to the max”; she got involved in political advocacy after she finished homeschooling her five kids. “The presumption of innocence … is something I taught my children,” she told me. But she, along with other women, thinks that privilege has not been afforded to Kavanaugh. “The media and the Democrats have totally flipped the narrative,” as Howard put it. Kavanaugh “is guilty until proven innocent.”
By and large, these women were not swayed by Ford’s testimony. Tamara Scott, the Republican national committeewoman for Iowa and the state director of Concerned Women for America, says she was even more skeptical of Ford’s claims after Thursday’s hearing. “I found her testimony to be inconsistent, from a woman who seemed to be confused at best,” Scott says. To her, Ford “overplayed her hand as the scattered and scared fragile female”: The professor’s “glasses were filthy and oversized, she looked scared and frazzled, [and] she refused to fix her hair caught in her glasses,” says Scott. “It was a purposeful disheveled look.”
After the hearing, Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona prosecutor Republicans hired to question Ford, presented a report arguing that Ford’s allegations were “even weaker” than a “‘he said, she said’” case, in part because the alleged witnesses didn’t corroborate her story. Her report held significant sway among the women I spoke with. “In Arizona, Rachel Mitchell has an outstanding reputation,” says Cathi Herrod, the head of the Center for Arizona Policy, an organization that promotes socially conservative values. “I would be in agreement with Ms. Mitchell’s assessment.”
Herrod was in Washington for Thursday’s hearing. Like many of the other women I talked to, she had already made up her mind about Ford and Kavanaugh before they testified; she spoke at a Women for Kavanaugh rally outside the Capitol on the morning of the hearing. When I asked her whether anything Ford said could have changed her mind, she paused. “If Dr. Ford had been able to corroborate her testimony, if she’d been able to satisfy even the bare minimum of standards, that probably would have changed my mind,” Herrod finally said. “But she didn’t show that.” To her, the evidence “is on Judge Kavanaugh’s side, that he’s not the type of man who would have committed this type of crime.”
Contrary to what some liberal pundits have claimed, however, the women I spoke with did not downplay the seriousness of sexual assault. “I never would want to disparage, in any way, Dr. Ford. Every woman deserves the opportunity to tell their story, to receive healing from what’s happened,” Smith says. She herself was sexually assaulted, she says, and her daughters passionately support Ford. Ultimately, though, she doesn’t believe the allegations are backed by evidence, and “I also am the mother of sons,” she says.
Laurie Lee, a Navy veteran who runs a political-consulting firm in Arkansas, has spent months working with the Susan B. Anthony List on its field operations in states with contested U.S. Senate elections, including Florida and Missouri. “Any kind of sexual abuse is intolerable,” she says. “I’ve been in male-dominated universes my entire adult life, and so I know that this happens.”
What she’s been hearing over the last couple of weeks, though, is that Democrats have “overplayed” these accusations. “It’s a disservice to women that have had horrific stories,” she says. She was open to believing Ford: “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s Bill Clinton or Brett Kavanaugh. We want to make sure that sexual predators are dealt with.” But like other women I interviewed, Lee believes the professor’s account is faulty, and that Democrats are using her for their own political ends. “This whole process, to me, comes across as something that has been crassly weaponized for political purposes,” says Kathleen Hunt, a political donor in Florida who spent 20 years in the CIA.
In the two weeks since the claims against Kavanaugh first emerged, many feminist groups have called on senators, and the American public, to believe women who come forward with sexual-assault allegations. Kamala Harris, the progressive Democratic senator from California, captured this sentiment when she questioned Ford during the hearing. “I believe you,” she said. “And I believe many Americans across this country believe you.”
The women I interviewed, however, resented the notion that people’s accusations should be believed on the basis of their identity alone. “That makes me furious, because I think that’s taking advantage for the worst purposes of something that is real in our culture,” Hunt says. “Women are not a monolithic bloc. Most of us … [are] not going to take to the streets with pitchforks and torches… That said, there’s a large, large percentage of us who feel very, very strongly about the way this process has played out.”