At Thursday’s hearing on Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was unfailingly polite.
Mitchell, an attorney from Maricopa County, Arizona, with years of experience prosecuting sex crimes, was chosen by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask Ford questions on their behalf. She began her questioning by apologizing for the death threats and other trauma Ford had endured after her allegations became public.
“I’m very sorry,” she said, “that’s not right.”
“I know this is stressful,” she added, going on to carefully and respectfully lay out ground rules for the hearing.
It was a far cry from the 1991 hearing on Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, when male senators spoke to Hill condescendingly and minimized the experiences she reported. Republicans had chosen Mitchell, a longtime prosecutor whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell oddly described on Tuesday as a “female assistant,” to avoid a repeat of 1991: In the #MeToo era, they didn’t want the optics of male senators grilling Ford.
Republicans were likely thinking not just about the future of Kavanaugh’s nomination but also about the midterm elections. The treatment Hill faced in the 1991 hearings stirred up anger among female voters, who helped usher in the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, when a record number of women were elected to Congress. Women are already engaged in politics at a heightened level this year, motivated in part by the rise of Donald Trump, who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Republicans don’t want women this year getting outraged further by the Kavanaugh hearings and taking their anger to the polls a little over a month from now.
Though the tone was different, the substance of Mitchell’s questions was very similar to what Hill faced in 1991. Again, a woman came before the Senate Judiciary Committee and had her memory, her credibility, and her sanity questioned. Again the hearing turned into a referendum on the woman, although she was neither the one accused of sexual misconduct nor the one hoping to ascend to the Supreme Court. Again, the man got the last word.
Ultimately, Mitchell’s presence seemed like an effort to sugarcoat a basic fact: Many senators are no more interested in taking sexual misconduct allegations seriously than their predecessors were in 1991. And when a woman comes forward with such allegations, too often, her words are still given less weight than a man’s. If Thursday’s hearing was a test of the impact of #MeToo, the results are clear: Our country still has a lot of work to do.
Ford was treated more gently than Anita Hill
On a surface level, Ford’s treatment was kinder and gentler than what Hill faced from senators in 1991. The differences were evident from the very beginning. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Ford she could take a break whenever she wanted and have anything she needed during the hearing.
And while Mitchell started her portion of the hearing by expressing sympathy for Ford, Sen. Joe Biden, the chair of the judiciary committee in 1991, began his questioning of Hill by getting frustrated with the challenge of seating her family.
“We will try to get a few more chairs, if possible, but we should get this underway,” Biden said as Hill’s family members filed in to support her. “We may, at some point, Professor Hill, attempt to accommodate either your counsel and/or your family members with chairs down the side here. They need not all be up front here.”
“We must get this hearing moving,” he added.
It wasn’t a glaringly disrespectful moment, but it was an odd one, and Biden didn’t go out of his way to accommodate Hill or make her comfortable.
After her opening apology, Mitchell asked a series of detailed questions about various statements Ford had made to the press or in her prepared testimony. Throughout, her tone was respectful and sympathetic. When Ford said the experience of taking a polygraph test had been stressful, Mitchell said, “I understand they can be that way.”
Mitchell’s questions largely seemed aimed at uncovering inconsistencies in Ford’s accounts, not minimizing the substance of her allegations. Contrast that with a now-famous exchange between then-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Hill, in which Specter asked about Hill’s allegation that Thomas had talked to her about porn films.
“You testified this morning, in response to Senator Biden, that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women’s large breasts,” he said. “That is a word we use all the time.”
“It wasn’t just the breasts,” Hill replied to Specter, “it was the continuation of his story about what happened in those films with the people with this characteristic.”
Specter then said, “In your statement to the FBI you did refer to the films, but there is no reference to the physical characteristic you describe. I don’t want to attach too much weight to it, but I had thought you said that the aspect of large breasts was the aspect that concerned you, and that was missing from the statement to the FBI.”
Senators, including Specter, also asked whether she was interested in Thomas sexually. Specter referred to a former colleague of Hill’s who suggested that her allegations “were the result of Ms. Hill’s disappointment and frustration that Mr. Thomas did not show any sexual interest in her.”
Sen. Howell Heflin (D-AL) asked Hill directly, “Are you a scorned woman?”
Of course, time isn’t the only difference between Hill’s hearing and Ford’s. As Hill herself has noted, she might have been treated differently had she been a white woman: “How do you think certain people would have reacted if I had come forward and been white, blond-haired and blue-eyed?” she asked in 2002. Women of color face unique obstacles when speaking up about sexual misconduct, and their reports may be more likely to be dismissed. And while senators must have known the importance of treating Ford sensitively in the #MeToo era, she may also have received a more polite reception than Hill because she is white.
Republicans’ appointment of Mitchell avoided the optics of men asking a woman intimate, insensitive questions about sexual misconduct. And Mitchell herself avoided using the kind of disrespectful language that aroused outrage among many women watching the Hill hearings.
But in substance, Ford’s hearing had the same problems as Hill’s
Mitchell may have spoken kindly to Ford, but the goal of her questions, ultimately, was to cast doubt on Ford’s account of her experiences. At one point, for instance, Mitchell noted that in an interview with the Washington Post, Ford said that her assault by Kavanaugh had contributed to her symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. “The word contributed, does that mean that there are other things that have happened that have also contributed to anxiety and PTSD?”
“The etiology of anxiety and PTSD is multifactorial,” Ford, a psychology professor, responded, adding that other factors beyond the assault might also have contributed to her symptoms.
“So have there been other things that have contributed to the anxiety and PTSD that you suffered?” Mitchell asked, later pressing Ford on whether any “environmental” factors might have led to her diagnoses.
“Environmental?” Ford asked. “Nothing that I can think of. Certainly nothing as striking as that event.”
The line of questioning seemed designed to call Ford’s overall mental health into question and thus damage her credibility. Compare that to suggestions during the Hill-Thomas hearings that Hill might suffer from “erotomania” or the delusion that Thomas was interested in her.
At one point, Specter quoted the statement of Dean Kothe, who knew Thomas and Hill: “I find the references to the alleged sexual harassment not only unbelievable but preposterous. I am convinced that such are the product of fantasy.”
“Would you care to comment on that?” Specter asked.
“Well, I would only say that I am not given to fantasy,” Hill replied.
Specter was far blunter than Mitchell, but the gist of their questions was the same: Was the woman before them of sound enough mind to know if she’d been the victim of sexual misconduct?
Ultimately, Mitchell’s presence seemed like an attempt to put a kinder face — importantly, a female face — on a process that was fundamentally the same as the one Hill faced in 1991: a public forum where supporters of the man she said had victimized her could poke holes in her story before a national audience.
“You are not on trial,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told Ford at one point. But, in a fundamental way, she was.
Ford and others had called for an FBI investigation before her testimony so that other witnesses could be interviewed and other evidence examined in a private setting, but that request was denied. And so Ford’s hearing became, like Hill’s, a referendum on her character and credibility rather than a real effort to gather and consider all the facts.
Just like in 1991, a man got the last word
In her negotiations with senators over Thursday’s hearing, Ford had asked to testify after Kavanaugh. She and her legal team were likely aware that Thomas was allowed to speak both before and after Hill, and that his last statement, televised during primetime on a Friday evening, was considered particularly influential on public opinion. But senators denied Ford’s request, and Kavanaugh spoke second, in a tearful, angry statement in which he accused Democrats of replacing “advice and consent with search and destroy.”
And while Republicans allowed Mitchell to speak for them when questioning Ford, some took the microphone themselves to ask questions of Kavanaugh that were really expressions of their own outrage that allegations of sexual assault were threatening to block his path to the Supreme Court.
“This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” said a furious Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“This is not a job interview,” he told, rather than asked, Kavanaugh. “This is hell.”
While Mitchell’s questioning of Ford was relatively staid, what followed — and what those watching the whole process will likely remember — was fiery. Republicans may not have attacked Ford directly, but they made clear that they thought her allegations were false and that Kavanaugh was the real victim.
“I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through,” Graham said to Kavanaugh. “I hope the American people can see through this sham.”
“In 1991,” Hill wrote in an op-ed last week in the New York Times, “the phrase ‘they just don’t get it’ became a popular way of describing senators’ reaction to sexual violence. With years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions, as well as a Senate with more women than ever, ‘not getting it’ isn’t an option for our elected representatives.”
By calling in Mitchell to ask their questions more sensitively than their predecessors did in 1991, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee showed that when it comes to understanding the optics of a hearing, they do “get it” now. But when it comes to giving a woman’s testimony, her experiences, and her feelings the same weight as a man’s, they don’t get it at all — or they just don’t care.