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What Brett Kavanaugh’s defenders get wrong about women’s anger

Kellyanne Conway says women are scapegoating Kavanaugh. Here’s why she’s off-base.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who has defended Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, pictured during an interview in August.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I’m a victim of sexual assault,” Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.

But, she said, “I don’t expect Judge Kavanaugh or Jake Tapper or Jeff Flake or anybody to be held responsible for that. You have to be responsible for your own conduct.”

Conway seemed to be arguing that survivors of sexual assault were unjustly taking their anger out on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by calling for senators to vote against his confirmation. Kavanaugh is now under investigation for allegations that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.

On CNN, Conway mentioned the survivors who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Friday after he announced he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

“Those women who — who were sexually assaulted, the other day who were confronting Jeff Flake, God bless them,” she said. “But go blame the perpetrator.”

It wasn’t a new argument. Other supporters of Kavanaugh have claimed that women are opposing his confirmation because they’re angry about the way other men have treated them. Looking farther back, others on the right — and the left — have accused advocates of the #MeToo movement of scapegoating innocent men to satisfy their desire for revenge on the men who actually wronged them. Even former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) said, in his resignation speech, that his career was a casualty of the #MeToo era.

It’s certainly true that women in America are angry. But to argue that survivors are turning their rage on Kavanaugh without regard for the truth is to misunderstand their message. Despite fears to the contrary, most women don’t think it’s okay for innocent men to be punished as part of #MeToo. And the women who confronted Flake were very specific in their criticisms of Kavanaugh’s nomination. They weren’t talking about the people who had assaulted them. They were talking about the man who remains steps away from a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.

Women’s pent-up rage may be fueling the #MeToo movement. “The role of anger, to me, is really undeniable in that movement,” Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Politics of Women’s Anger, told Vox.

But just as women are capable of telling the difference between the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and those against Aziz Ansari, they know the difference between their personal stories and the choice facing the country now. Conway and others are claiming that survivors are blinded by their rage — if anything, it’s opened their eyes.

It’s become popular to claim that sexual assault survivors are scapegoating innocent men

Sunday wasn’t the first time that Conway had argued that Kavanaugh was being scapegoated by #MeToo.

“I just don’t think one man’s shoulders should bear decades of the #MeToo movement,” she said in an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

Others made similar arguments. Writing at the Federalist, Nathanael Blake argued that opposition to Kavanaugh stemmed from a sexually immoral culture in which men routinely exploited women.

“There is now a reckoning with this immiseration of women, and Kavanaugh’s enemies are presenting him as representative of this wretched culture,” he wrote. “He has been made a scapegoat, a stand-in for every entitled prep boy or frat bro who got away with treating women badly.”

Versions of this thesis — in the #MeToo era, women are out for blood, and they don’t care who it comes from — have been cropping up for months.

“Companies are firing perverts and sexual harassers, which is great, but those who can’t find any bad behavior to punish are casting around angrily, looking for random things to attack,” Kyle Smith wrote at the New York Post in February.

In January, Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic criticized the Babe.net story in which a woman said Aziz Ansari had pressured her for sex, calling it “3,000 words of revenge porn.”

“We’re at warp speed now, and the revolution—in many ways so good and so important—is starting to sweep up all sorts of people into its conflagration: the monstrous, the cruel, and the simply unlucky,” she wrote. Young women, she continued, are “angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”

And when Franken announced his resignation from the Senate in December, after multiple women said he had groped or otherwise harassed them, he seemed to cast himself as an unwitting victim of #MeToo.

“A couple months ago I felt we had entered an important moment in the history of this country,” he began. “We were finally beginning to listen to women about the ways in which men’s actions affect them.”

“Then,” he said, “the conversation turned to me.” In responding to the allegations against him, Franken said he “wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”

The implication of his words was that women were right to be angry about sexual misconduct by men — but that any anger at Franken himself was misplaced. He, in other words, was a man at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Women are angry — but that doesn’t mean they’re confused

It’s undoubtedly true that we are at a moment in history in which women’s anger — indeed, the anger of all people who are survivors of sexual harassment and assault — is coming to the fore with incredible power.

When women first began responding to the #MeToo hashtag, Chemaly noted, many of them posted messages like “I have so much rage” or “I’m shaking with anger.”

But it’s not the case that women are simply taking their anger out on all men indiscriminately. In a Vox/Morning Consult poll conducted in March, 69 percent of women said they supported the #MeToo movement. But only 9 percent thought it was acceptable for some men to be falsely accused as part of the movement, and just 17 percent thought it was okay if men lost their jobs over allegations of sexual misconduct that weren’t backed up by concrete evidence.

In focus groups conducted with the polling firm PerryUndem, Vox found that even women who supported #MeToo were concerned about men being falsely accused and about different kinds of sexual misconduct being treated the same way. One 33-year-old woman, for instance, said she believed the movement was “going to really help all the more women to rise at work and to become fully equal with men.” However, she said, “I felt the woman going public about Aziz Ansari was painting an unfair picture of him,” adding, “I feel like he was being lumped in with predators.”

Far from being full of indiscriminate rage, the women we talked to were cautiously optimistic — excited about the potential of the #MeToo movement, but wary of potential pitfalls. Many were angry about what had happened to them, their mothers, their daughters, and their friends, but many were also concerned that false allegations might touch the men in their lives. The stereotype of the woman so enraged by her past trauma that any male sacrifice will do was nowhere to be found.

The women who confronted Flake, meanwhile, weren’t screaming with inarticulate rage. They were making a clear argument on behalf of Americans like them. “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you’re going to ignore them,” one of the survivors said. “That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you’re telling all women in America — that they don’t matter.”

And in an op-ed in USA Today, Ana María Archila, one of the survivors who confronted Flake, made clear that telling her story was not an uncontrollable outpouring of bloodlust, but a considered political act.

She and others were speaking up, she wrote, “in the hopes that when the senators hear our stories, they will not only believe us but, most important, also will use their power to help heal our country, and not further reinforce the culture that condones sexual violence by ignoring survivors.”

“We still have this tendency to categorize women’s anger as private and personal and emotional,” Chemaly said. But at this moment in history, she argued, women’s anger is political.

Women aren’t thoughtlessly seeking a male victim for their rage, she said. Rather, they’re actually doing something constructive with their anger.

“We think of anger as something overwhelmingly negative, but it’s actually our management or mismanagement of anger that produces negative results,” she said. Some studies show that anger can help us think more clearly and creatively.

Anger isn’t just aggressive, Chemaly explained — it can also be compassionate and empathetic. And it can be powerful if we learn to “make meaning out of it,” she said. The trick is to “decide what I do well, and how am I going to take this energy and do that to make change.”

That’s exactly what the survivors were doing when they confronted Flake, Chemaly said — and what many of the hundreds of women running for office this year were doing when they decided to enter politics after the election of President Donald Trump, who has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct.

“All of the women who stepped up to run for office, they are substantively fueled by their feelings of rage,” Chemaly said. “You have to push women pretty far for them to work en masse at this scale.”

As for the idea that women were just using Kavanaugh as a scapegoat for their own assaults, Chemaly called it “bullshit.”

Conway, she argued, is “saying women have to control themselves, they don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

The idea that anger makes you confused really only applies to one expression of anger, she said — “the explosive, ‘let me break things’ anger” that our culture tends to associate with “rage-filled men.”

The anger, in other words, of men like Brett Kavanaugh.