Published 2:35 AM EDT Sep 29, 2018
The image, for so many women across the country, was searing -- a mirror reflection of long-hidden pain, of memories that still cut to the bone, of wounds that sometimes feel like they will never fully heal.
There was Christine Blasey Ford, voice trembling, hair slightly askew, eager to appear pleasant and collegial before the panel of stern men staring back at her. Terrified, as she told the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee considering the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
For hours on Thursday, she recounted one of the most traumatic events of her life, even as she knew the likely outcome: “I wondered if I would just be jumping in front of a train that was going where it was going anyway, and I would just be personally annihilated.”
The next day, Fran Scott, a 65-year-old retiree, sat in a food court in a suburban Houston mall and predicted the same. Scott had no doubt that Kavanaugh, despite the allegations that he sexually assaulted three women, will eventually be appointed to the court. She had no doubt that his angry, tearful tirade before the committee would be perceived more sympathetically than Ford’s restrained and stricken demeanor.
“We think we have come far, but nothing has changed. We are not believed when we say we are abused,” said Scott, who described herself as “defeated, deflated and numb” but determined to press forward.
But while many women said Ford's experiences echoed their own and they were appalled at Kavanaugh's anger, many men saw his indignation during the hearing Thursday as justified -- a reflection of the gender divide stoked by the nomination.
Cameron Nessmith, 29, an internal auditor the Houston area, admired the fire and fury of Kavanaugh's appearance. During his testimony, the Supreme Court nominee veered between outrage and tears, and at times, was combative with the Democrats questioning him.
“He just cared about clearing his name,” Nessmith said. “I felt like he was fighting for his life. That gave me more sympathy for him. He didn’t come across as begging.”
Across the country, women who watched Ford’s testimony saw glimpses of their own stories, eliciting a mix of anger, resignation and frustration. For some, the hearing excavated long-buried trauma, prompting a 147 percent spike in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
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Other survivors flooded the C-SPAN phone lines to share their experiences of sexual abuse and assault. One 76-year-old woman described being sexually molested as a second grader; a 26-year-old talked -- through tears -- of being assaulted in college.
In social media, many -- including the daughter of longtime Disney company executive Roy E. Disney -- shared wrenching stories of sexual and family violence and commented on the difference between Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony, noting how their markedly different demeanors reinforced what is considered socially acceptable for men and women.
“What's breaking my heart right now is Ford's desperate and quite earnest desire to please,” posted writer Jennifer Senior.
While women and girls are often socialized to be polite and smile through pain, Kavanaugh “comes and starts yelling that he has been treated unfairly and everyone sympathizes. Why does he feel free to get indignant and yell at senators?” asked Elizabeth Gregory, director of the Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston.
The outpouring of emotional response to the hearing reveals how pervasive sexual violence is in society, said Gregory, noting that “violence is all around us. It occurs all the time. It is the premise of every TV show, where we know women will be killed.”
For women, the possibility of sexual violence is a constant in a way that it is not for most men, said Gregory. That may be one reason why the Kavanaugh allegations have resonated differently along gender lines.
According to a recent USA TODAY/Ipsos Public Affairs Poll, 35 percent of women said they believe Ford's accusations, compared to 21 percent of men. Men by nine percentage points said they believe Kavanaugh's denials, 37 percent to 28 percent.
In addition, women oppose him by 20 points, 43 percent to 23 percent; men support him by four points, 40 percent to 36 percent.
Nessmith, the Houston auditor, said he understands why the allegations and the graphic testimony would trigger such personal and emotional reactions in women, and admitted that a double standard exists in the way men and women are treated.
Yet, even though he found Ford’s testimony credible and compelling, Nessmith felt there was not enough proof to derail Kavanaugh’s life and career.
Anna Núñez, by contrast, found herself shaken and unsettled, as Thursday’s testimony unearthed her own experience of sexual harassment.
“We all have #MeToo stories that we don’t want to talk about,” said Núñez, 51, coordinator of special programs at The University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health in Houston. “A lot of women will wake up with the same shame. Dr. Ford spoke out but how many of us have remained silent?”
As she watched Kavanaugh speak, Núñez said she felt sick to her stomach.
“Regardless of political affiliation, every woman could look at his smug, angry face and recognize it,” she said. “We all have had instances where we are not heard, not listened to or respected, where we are shut down.”
In downtown Denver, a crowd of more than 100 men and women Friday chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Kavanaugh has got to go,” outside the office of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Their protest began moments after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Kavanaugh‘s nomination.
“There’s just a sense of shock that they are barreling ahead and not listening to what people are saying about this person’s character,” said Rana Gheissari, who held an “I believe Ford” sign.
Gheissari, a Democrat who works in sales, said seeing Kavanaugh’s testimony hardened her opposition.
“It increased my resolve that this isn’t something that should proceed,” she said. “His overall tone was shocking and inappropriate.”
Chris Vogler, on the other hand, said the hearings offered little clarity. Vogler, who described himself as right-leaning, said Kavanaugh did a good job forcefully defending himself.
He said he was also particularly impressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s “tirade” in support of the judge.
“I’ve never really liked Lindsey Graham before but I kind of like him now,” said Vogler, 47, who works in industrial sales and was attending a convention in Denver.
In Portland, Cory Huff, 37, who works in marketing, said he purposely avoided the hearing Thursday, even deleting Twitter from his phone. But he still felt the fallout.
A family member is currently recovering from sexual assault so “this entire process of hearing from and about multiple accusers has been traumatic for our family,” said Huff, who is not registered with either party. “She’s having a hard time. She’s had to tune everything out completely.”
Another Portland resident, Erinn Warner, 48, identified herself as a “bleeding-heart liberal.”
“That’s what’s happening right now,” she said. “My heart is bleeding.”
At first, Warner thought Ford’s testimony -- “so credible and so believable” -- would be hard for Kavanaugh to follow. Then she saw his bluster and ire.
“When it was over I thought, he’s gonna get confirmed,” Warner said. “It doesn’t matter that he lies about a bunch of little things, doesn’t matter that he’s been accused of sexual assault by multiple women—they have an agenda and they want someone who can help them overturn Roe vs Wade. I’ll be shocked if he’s not confirmed.”
For Christina Doan, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom of two toddler daughters, the outcome is not as important as Ford’s willingness to speak out.
Pretty much every woman has gone through some kind of sexual harassment or assault, Doan said matter-of-factly. She has. More than once.
“Males think they can treat you any old way. They think no one will believe you,” she said, as her little girls played on rides at a Houston mall. “More women need to speak out like she has.”
She paused, gazed at her giggling children, then chased after one of her daughters, who wore a black t-shirt with a slogan in silver sparkle: “Slaying it like Mama.”
Contributed: Trevor Hughes and Lindsay Schnell