On Friday afternoon, Senator Susan Collins of Maine delivered a floor speech to the Senate and to the cable-news cameras situated within its chambers. In it, she made clear what had been, up until that point, likely but not inevitable: She would vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, all but assuring that the Senate overall would elevate him to the bench.
As Collins spoke, she also participated, television being what it is, in a moment that had clearly been designed to be one of historical image-making: The senator was surrounded, as she delivered her speech, by two other (white, Republican) women who had supported Kavanaugh in his fight for confirmation, Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Cindy Hyde-Smith. A triptych meant to signal progress that also signaled its absence. But there was another woman who was part of that image, as well—a woman who has been present, not in body but in spirit, in the debates that have swirled around the late stages of the Kavanaugh nomination: Christine Blasey Ford. The woman who, in stepping forward to allege that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers, had called the judge’s once-breezy confirmation process into question—and who had also, within those winds, re-sparked a national conversation on sexual abuse.
Collins’s decision to confirm Kavanaugh suggests that Ford’s stated fears about coming forward in the first place—“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”—will in one way be proved true: Ford offered herself up, to be questioned in every sense. And the overall result of the confirmation vote, barring an extraordinary development—Justice Kavanaugh, the ninth occupant of the Supreme Court’s bench—will be the same as if she’d maintained her privacy and her national anonymity and the life she’d built for herself. But change moves side to side as well as back and forth—and in another way, the coming forward of Christine Blasey Ford changed everything. It convinced many who had been silent about their own experiences to share them out loud. It insisted that the sharing should not be a matter of shame.
Friday’s procedural vote took place on the one-year anniversary of the day The New York Times published the first of its investigations into Harvey Weinstein, and the cyclicality is fitting: Collins’s speech, which attempted to have it both ways in so many ways, nodding at once to the dignity of survivors and the necessities of due process, the significance of judicial precedent and the completeness of an FBI investigation that has been, objectively, incomplete, suggested both progress and backlash at once. It also suggested, however, how much impact Christine Blasey Ford really did have, in the end. It suggested that she, like Anita Hill before her, did not sacrifice—her privacy, her image, her self—in vain. You can see that influence in, among so much else, the three images of Ford that have, over the past weeks, become iconic—images that will help sear and seal Ford into the text of history. Another kind of triptych—one that, in its own way, suggests how far America has come. And how far it has, still, to go.
The way many Americans first saw Christine Blasey Ford was through an appropriated image: the one the professor had posted, in the time before her life was transformed, on her ResearchGate profile. A woman grinning and wearing sunglasses and embracing a boy, presumably her son, in a high place overlooking a body of water, far away from the town of Chevy Chase and from the year of 1982. The picture captures what Ford was—Christine M. Blasey, Ph.D, M.S., the professor and the professional, with 4,733 citations—before she offered herself up to history as Christine Blasey Ford, alleged victim. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh accuser. The woman in that photo is joyful and carefree and, for most Americans, unfamiliar.
It is revealing how grainy the picture is, used as illustrations for news stories: a picture of a private figure, used without her consent. A picture of a woman whose story would be weaponized, and who would be compelled to testify in public against her will. A woman who would later say, of her reluctance to come forward, “They called my boss and co-workers and left me many messages, making it clear that my name would inevitably be released to the media. I decided to speak out publicly to a journalist who had responded to the tip I had sent to The Washington Post and who had gained my trust. It was important to me to describe the details of the assault in my own words.”
Last week, Ford did precisely that: She spoke. She testified. She offered herself—her body, her words—as tribute. The day Ford appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the public image of her changed: The grainy image taken from her profile page, the private person made public against her will, was substituted with the professionally shot journalistic images of the national news event. It was the first time the American public would see Christine Blasey Ford as she chose to be seen. The suit: navy, plain, the jacket matching the shell, no bright pop of color—an outfit that perhaps, in its blue tone, functioned as a gesture of respect to Anita Hill, but an outfit that was otherwise strategically unremarkable. A way for Ford to keep the focus on her words.
The image of Ford’s testimony that became the iconic one was captured early on in her appearance: the image of her swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Here, Ford was depicted with her eyes closed, as if captured in prayer: her right hand raised, her shoulders back. The image suggested the beatific: In that small chamber in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Ford was bathed in light from above. The clock on the wall behind her gave the effect of a halo. She projected competence, and quiet confidence, even before she spoke. So help her God.
It was a testimony that in many ways doubled as a kind of ceremony. And one of those ways was that, moment by moment, the previous image of Christine Blasey—the photo of the private citizen, joyful and anonymous—was replaced with the new. The private figure became the public one became the historic one. The woman became the icon. And she became, as icons will, also a metaphor: a vessel of meaning, into which the American public felt free to pour their own feelings—about abuse, about due process, about Republicans, about Democrats, about professors, about women. Her image was both hers and not hers. Ford became, over the course of her hours-long testimony, a realization of the theorist John Berger’s observation: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.”
Power embraced, power ceded; the image that belongs to her, the image that belongs to something bigger. On Thursday, a week after the testimony and days before the Kavanaugh confirmation vote, Time magazine shared the cover of its latest issue: the image of Ford’s hand-raised, light-bathed swearing-in, this time rendered in the words she had delivered as part of her testimony. Words, swirling into the strands of her hair; words, forming her closed eyelids—“Panic Attack” on her left; “Anxiety” on her right; words in the spaces just over her heart: “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now.” Time had commissioned the San Francisco–based artist John Mavroudis to create the image; he had drawn each letter by hand. The resulting work accompanied an article, written by Haley Sweetland Edwards, that contained this line: “In her courage, many Americans saw the opposite of everything they think is wrong with Washington. Politicians spin, fudge the truth, grasp at power. Ford appeared guileless.”
The cover is an image that will join the others in the ongoing public recollections of Ford’s testimony: a picture composed of words. A rendering of the professor that converts her testimony into a testament: to the power of a voice, raised. To the impact a single person can have on the course of human events. In 1991, Time published another cover pegged to “America’s watershed debate on sexual harassment.” This one featured the woman who had herself become iconic—and who had herself changed so much—through her own testimony to the Senate: Anita Hill. This Time cover, however, situated Hill’s picture next to a photo of Clarence Thomas. It set the images off each other so as to suggest that the two figures, within the close quarters of the magazine cover, were glaring at each other. It used as its headline “Sex, Lies & Politics.”
The Time of 1991 treated Hill’s testimony as the stuff of soap opera and scandal—and, in that, it minimized her. It refused to take her, or her powerful words, fully seriously. Decades later, in the age of #BelieveWomen, in the time of #MeToo, the woman on the cover is alone with her words. She is given the dignity of solitude. But she speaks on behalf of many others—many more who have been sharing their stories, and many more who will keep standing up, keep testifying, keep challenging the order of things, keep making themselves iconic. History has its eyes on you, the line goes. It’s a warning, yes; it is also, however, a promise.
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