Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings was the first thing on my mind when I woke up on September 27, 2018. From my own experience in 1991, I knew that from the minute Ford began her testimony, her life would never be the same.
Some parts of my heart, stomach, and head were with Ford as she testified in the Hart Senate Office Building, though I was 2,000 miles away. A talk at the University of Utah on September 26 had been on my calendar since April, months before Donald Trump chose Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. But on the morning of September 27, I, like so many people, held my breath in anticipation of Ford’s testimony.
In theory, what she was about to testify could determine whether Kavanaugh would be given a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. But I was filled with doubt about whether anything that Ford said would make a difference.
For Kavanaugh, a lot was at stake. He had been chosen and groomed for the position by a powerful conservative group, the Federalist Society. I was certain of Ford’s ability to tell her story and the truth of it. But I had no confidence in Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans being willing to hold a hearing aimed at getting to the truth. I hoped to be proved wrong, and I wanted to pass that hope on to the students waiting for me on the University of Utah campus. And for myself, I wanted to believe that a witness who had a credible claim about a judicial nominee’s alleged assault would have the opportunity to present all of the facts.
I had never spoken with Ford directly, but once the Judiciary Committee chair, Chuck Grassley, who also had heard my testimony about Clarence Thomas three decades earlier, announced that Ford would testify, emails flooded my inbox. Some suggested politely, “I would like to see you sitting behind Dr. Ford as she testifies on Thursday.” Others argued that my presence “would certainly send a message to those, dare I say, incorrigible, ignorant men who did not listen to your honest pleas to be heard those many years ago.”
My instinct told me that those “ignorant men” and many others would make political hay out of any gesture I made to show my support for Ford. I recalled the claims from 1991 that left-wing, pro-abortion-rights feminists had duped me into testifying about Thomas’s behavior. I was certain that Ford was hearing something of the same.
My biggest hope for the day was that it would be a completely different experience for her than it had been for me—that a lot of hard work by activists, researchers, lawyers, and others raising claims and demanding change in their workplace in the 27 years since I had faced that same Senate committee had resulted in the evolution of a new awareness of gender violence. But with some of the same senators from 1991 sitting on the Judiciary Committee and with Grassley in charge, I could not bring myself to be optimistic that the entire committee had evolved.
The 1991 committee was entirely made up of white men, and men in the Senate outnumbered women 98 to two. That the 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee included women, one of whom was Black, as well as a Black man, gave me hope for a greater understanding of gender and power, as did the fact that 23 women were Senate members. I wanted to believe that, between 1991 and 2018, enough senators had read the Department of Justice or CDC reports about the prevalence and health consequences of sexual violence to counter the committee’s naysayers.
In 1991, one public showing of solidarity helped me make sense of my experience. A group called African American Women in Defense of Ourselves—led by three feminist scholars, Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King, and Barbara Ransby—placed an ad in The New York Times. Without the benefit of social media, the effort had come together quickly and seamlessly: 1,600 Black women rallied, collecting $50,000 to buy a full-page advertisement denouncing the senators’ attack on my right to speak and their erasure of the history of Black women’s abuse. Their words and their act of broadcasting them publicly helped me understand the importance of my coming forward and left me feeling less isolated. Being made to feel alone is an oft-used tactic victims face when they choose to testify about gender-based violence. Like outright denials, it causes witnesses to doubt themselves and their importance despite their truthfulness. The Times ad stopped short of declaring that Thomas relied on racist and sexist myths embedded in our culture, including the distrust of women—particularly of Black women—to make his case. But as important, the ad’s writers expressed outrage, something neither I nor Ford, nearly 30 years later, could do without destroying any chance that we would be taken seriously.
Despite the support Ford had from her family, lawyers, and others surrounding her, I knew that she would feel isolated and, perhaps, outraged. The morning of her testimony, an ad fashioned after the Black feminists’ ad appeared in The New York Times. This time, Meena Harris, the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and the niece of then-Senator Kamala Harris, and Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, started an initiative called “1,600 Men for Anita Hill & Christine Blasey Ford.” The signers of the ad agreed to do their part to end gender-based violence and urged the Senate to provide for a “just process, and for the rights of women like Dr. Blasey Ford to be heard fully, fairly, and with respect.”
As I opened the paper to the page in the Times, I felt a sensational rush of affirmation for myself and for the impact that Brown, King, and Ransby were still having. I prayed that it gave Ford a sense of assurance that she was not alone and that what she was about to do mattered. The 2018 ad boosted my spirits even though I had no way of knowing for sure how Ford felt about it. Women, especially sexual-violence victims and survivors, wanted to hear her voice—waited for her chance to tell what had happened to the 16-year-old who had gone to what she thought was a typical teen party but turned out to be a life-changing event. Many of us were closely monitoring the hearing from our home and workplace. We were millions of “hearing watchers,” alert to any signs of prejudice against Ford, outright intimidation, or behind-the-scenes dealmaking and ready to call them out. She was poised to exercise her right to be heard—our collective right to be heard.
From the time Ford took her seat in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and read her opening statement, I was engrossed. Her statement opened with biographical details, including her impressive academic career, her 15-year marriage and two children, her childhood in the D.C. area and enrollment in a private high school. Then she got to the point: “This is how I met Brett Kavanaugh, the boy who sexually assaulted me.”
I admired her composure. Ford acknowledged that she was nervous. Over the years, people have said that they don’t know how I was able to stay so calm and cool under all that glare and scrutiny. Yes, there were cameras shoved in my face and people agitating in ways that made it unclear if they were for me or against me. In retrospect, the whole spectacle was terrifying. Still, once you raise your hand and swear on a Bible, your focus becomes laser clear: to tell the truth.
What I heard in Ford’s voice and choice of words was a commitment to tell the truth. What I also heard was a resolve to make the committee and the public understand her experience.
Republican senators had hired the Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to question Ford, another signal that Grassley had no intention of giving her a fair hearing. Like then-Senator Arlen Specter, who had interrogated me, Mitchell was a prosecutor, and she questioned Ford as if Ford were on trial.
Despite Ford’s admitted nervousness, she was clear about what she had experienced and equally clear when she didn’t recall something. I watched Mitchell try to discredit a credible witness and poke holes in solid testimony, looking for inconsistencies—some minor—like how loud the music was at the party and whether there was a TV. I wondered if the former sex-crimes prosecutor would regret accepting the role of being Ford’s inquisitor. Was this really what she wanted her legacy to be?
Then I turned the TV off, not because it was painful (although it was), and not because the hearing was a sham (although it was), but because watching the first few minutes had given me confidence that Ford was up to the task of convincing a majority of the committee that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager and that Kavanaugh had been the assailant. For the time being, a classroom of students in a women’s-studies class at the University of Utah had to be my priority, no matter how the hearings unfolded. I wanted to help the students make sense of what was happening, and perhaps prepare them for the disconnect between what they would see and what they had been raised to believe about progress in this country.
Wanting to give the students some hope, I put my own cynicism on hold. They shared their stories about why they’d majored in gender-and-sexuality studies and what their courses had taught them. We talked about shared aspirations for gender equality. Yes, they were concerned, but they appeared to be sanguine about the process. Theirs was a generation that had grown up with the belief that sexual-assault and -harassment victims and survivors were taken seriously and that abusers would be held accountable. The compelling stories of the #MeToo movement were fresh in their minds.
By the end of our session, they were focusing on their own ambitions and how what they had learned in gender-studies classes had prepared them to understand what was unfolding in Washington. I left the class feeling less anxious than when I had arrived but was unconvinced that they were ready to deal with the dejection of another process that might very well minimize the behavior that they or their friends likely had suffered. Perhaps my own experience with testifying at the Thomas hearing was causing me to overreact. Not so.
I would learn from friends that the hearing was not going well for Ford. Though Ford, a psychologist, eloquently explained her memory lapses in scientific terms, the Republicans seemed indifferent. She told the committee how since the alleged assault, Kavanaugh’s and his friend’s “uproarious” laughter was “indelible” in her hippocampus. She risked being caricatured as too smart and thus unintentionally undermining her claim. Would Republican senators argue that she was too intelligent to be a victim of sexual assault? Ford acknowledged that the pain she’d felt at the time of the traumatic experience and in the years since was locked in her brain. Would they say that she was too emotional in explaining her experience? Throughout Ford’s testimony, Grassley tried to put on a facade of impartiality, but it was clear that the Republicans on the committee were not moved by what she shared with them.
At one point in questioning Ford, Mitchell appeared to imply that the anxiety and fear of flying Ford attributed to her assault were “not so bad.” Mitchell noted that Ford had taken vacations to Hawaii and Costa Rica, traveling to each location by plane, as though the mere suggestion that Ford wasn’t really afraid to fly showed that she couldn’t have been assaulted by Kavanaugh.
Back in my room to pack before heading to the airport, I turned the TV on. Thankfully, my spouse, Chuck, was with me in Utah to watch Kavanaugh’s response. And I became hopeful that the committee would see that Kavanaugh’s anger and veiled threats against senators who rejected his nomination were disqualifying. But when Grassley abruptly cut off Mitchell’s questioning of Kavanaugh before she was able to grill him about his activities at the time Ford said he assaulted her, the pretense of fairness completely vanished.
Later that afternoon, during a three-hour flight to Houston for another talk I was giving, I tried to keep calm. By the time I arrived, the hearing was over. Denial—individual, institutional, and structural—had a two-pronged effect, disparaging Ford’s credibility and minimizing the gravity of the behavior she’d described. Elected officials who are meant to serve the people relied on political procedures, a shoddy investigation, and a perplexing hearing instead of a fact-finding process.
When the Judiciary Committee voted to move Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate, I was sitting before the crowd at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing hosted by AnitaB.org, an organization centered on supporting women in tech. This time the audience was older than the one in the gender-and-women’s-studies class, and it was made up mostly of women and nonbinary individuals working in the tech industry. I was well aware that some of the people looking back at me had joined the Women’s March in January 2017 to protest the very dismissal of women’s voices that we had witnessed the day before in the Kavanaugh hearing. Though the intense stage lighting kept me from seeing many of the faces in the crowd, I could tell that the mood was somber. I reminded them that though we seemed to have had little influence over the way the Kavanaugh hearing had transpired, what came next was up to us. I assured them that they still had the power to act, whether in their own workplace or through civic engagement.
Though I would later learn that many in the audience were crying, the event turned out to be affirming for me and for the audience. It felt good to be together in this moment of uncertainty about the upcoming vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination and whether our experiences mattered to our government.
On October 2, Mitchell declared that there was not sufficient evidence to support Ford’s claim. That same day, President Trump went so far as to mock Ford’s testimony at a rally in Mississippi and warned that “young men in America” were in danger of false accusations. The president extolled Kavanaugh as “one of the finest people” he knew.
That Trump had called Ford a credible witness a few days earlier no longer mattered. The power imbalance created by the president’s endorsement of Kavanaugh made it nearly impossible for Ford to be taken seriously in a battle over credibility. In the end, it didn’t matter that the 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee had more gender and racial diversity than the 1991 committee. It didn’t matter that Senator Amy Klobuchar forcefully challenged Kavanaugh’s recollection about some of the events that Ford spoke of. And although Senator Cory Booker gave an impassioned plea for the committee to dispense with its denials and fulfill its obligation to listen to survivors of sexual assault, the rush to approve the nominee continued without pause. In 27 years, the committee makeup had changed but the rules that allowed for relevant facts to be excluded remained the same.
On October 6, 2018, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment by a vote of 50–48.
This article has been adapted from Anita Hill’s forthcoming book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence