The men of the Senate Judiciary Committee stepped carefully into last week’s hearing with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, well aware that the specter of Justice Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation was still in the room. Those closely watching the proceedings hoped that enough had shifted in the cultural landscape since the last time another accomplished, professional woman — Anita Hill — leveled claims of sexual misconduct against a powerful man seeking to gain even more power.
Instead, we were shown just how little has changed.
In the decades since Hill, there’s been a long-overdue reckoning with how hard women must fight to be heard — let alone believed — when they call out men who harm them. The #MeToo movement and the many high-profile instances of assault allegations that have accompanied it demonstrate that exposing bad behavior can finally (sometimes!) result in power slipping from a man’s grasp. At least for awhile.
But for men accustomed to power being both at their backs and at their fingertips, there’s a collective panic happening over these shifts. “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” President Trump, perhaps the most useful avatar for men’s anguish over the challenges to their status, lamented Tuesday, in reference to Kavanaugh. “Women,” Trump added, “are doing great.”
“Women don’t get taught to exercise power.”
If nothing else, Trump has a knack for reading the metaphorical room when it’s packed with others like him, and what he’s correctly reading on the minds and faces of other powerful men is fear — and the resulting primal instinct for self-preservation.
“We teach boys that once the power hierarchy is sorted out [among ourselves], we all fall into line,” says Andrew Smiler, PhD, a psychologist and professor whose research focuses on masculinity. “Maybe we’re the Sharks and the Jets, and we’ll fight again, figure out who is the alpha, but after that’s over, then we’ll fall in line. This is not what women learn. Women don’t get taught to exercise power. They get taught to build teams.”
And when it comes to women seeking justice, patriarchy is still the extra thumb on the scale, according to Chris Kilmartin, PhD, a retired psychology professor who co-authored, along with Smiler, the textbook The Masculine Self.
“When you look at how sexism operates, there’s the hostile sexism — the ‘I hate women.’ And then the ‘benevolent’ sexism, the chivalry,” Kilmartin says. “When women cooperate with men’s dominance, they’re praised, even though they’re still seen as incompetent.”
Ford may not have experienced the same character assassination as Hill (infamously smeared as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”), but that doesn’t mean the majority is ready to value the impact of a woman’s sexual assault as equal to a man’s promotion.
Most Republican committee members affirmed that Ford was a credible survivor of an assault, just not one that was perpetrated by their nominee. “I found Dr. Ford’s testimony credible,” said Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, hours before also insisting that there was “simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh a place on the Supreme Court.”
The system that hoisted Justice Thomas onto the Supreme Court over Hill’s reports is the same one that’s trying to put Kavanaugh in the seat next to him, regardless of the veracity of Ford’s claims.
Kavanaugh surprised some onlookers by launching into his testimony with anger, though his supporters viewed it sympathetically, noting that Kavanaugh could fail to ascend to a prestigious lifetime job if things didn’t go his way in the hearing. And though Kavanaugh floundered at points during the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham saw to it that he didn’t fail and rushed to Kavanaugh’s defense with a scorched-earth rebuke of the Democrats.
Taken together, the entire affair looked explosive, maybe even desperate. But this kind of display is entirely predictable when power is threatened. “Once you’ve chosen a power-assertion strategy, your only options are to double down and keep doing it or quit,” Smiler says. There’s a third option, building consensus, but it’s expected only of women, he adds. “We expect men to respond angrily when challenged and women to be more thoughtful.”
Although his volatility was decried in op-eds and ridiculed on late-night TV, Kavanaugh has emerged largely unscathed where it matters most: Almost all of the Republican majority in the Senate remains on board with his confirmation. And a recent national survey showed that 54 percent of Republicans said they would support Kavanaugh’s confirmation even if the sexual assault allegations against him are proved.
A power structure that exists only to protect and regenerate itself can seem impenetrable.
The numbers alone perpetuate a system where belligerence in women is punished and is accommodated, if not rewarded, in men. “[For men] it’s better to lose the fight and attempt to maintain the honor and defend the clan than it is to walk away or make peace [and lose face],” Smiler explains. “It’s better to fight and lose.”
The pattern is so pervasive that it can even distort the expectations of what real consequences are supposed to look like. Comedian Louis C.K. and broadcasting star John Hockenberry are just two of the men who lost powerful positions following reports of their abusive behavior toward women. Less than a year later, they already have platforms for a career comeback, or at least a reputational rehabilitation.
A power structure that exists only to protect and regenerate itself can seem impenetrable, but it’s not entirely, Kilmartin says. The change, though, is slow. “We have to think in a frame of continuity and change at the same time: The Congress that was seated just a few years ago was 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and 92 percent Christian,” he says.
During Hill’s 1991 hearing, there were just two female senators and no women on the Judiciary Committee; today, there are 23 women in the Senate, four of whom serve on the committee. “That’s continuity and change at the same time,” Kilmartin says.
A more encouraging way that 2018 has echoed 1991? Women who saw the Anita Hill hearing were galvanized to run for office, including current Senator Patty Murray, who that year became her state’s first female U.S. senator. The following election cycle was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” and within a year, the number of women in the Senate doubled from two to four.
This year has also been dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” and while reaching parity in the Senate isn’t possible this cycle, a record number of women are running for office.
“Come November,” Kilmartin says, “we’ll see what happens.”