Last week, there was a powerful spectacle in the U.S. Senate and on television: women testifying for Judge Brett Kavanaugh ’87, LAW ’90, to be appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court. His female clerks, classmates and associates said that Judge Kavanaugh is kind to women, serves as a mentor and an advocate and supports women in the workplace. Kavanaugh himself stated that he cares about the problem of sexual harassment. Yet he now stands accused of committing sexual assault as a teenager.
During the confirmation hearings, a row of women, mostly white, were seated behind him, as if to form a phalanx of supporters. His wife and daughters were in the front row. There were also women of color seated strategically behind him and therefore constantly on screen with him. Condoleezza Rice was there, and then Zina Bash, his former law clerk appointed in the Trump White House to help develop the administration’s immigration policy, who is Jewish and Mexican. On the last day of the hearing, Kavanaugh brought in his daughter’s basketball team (after many mentions of his role as coach) to further demonstrate his commitment to women and girls. Even as the sexual assault allegation surfaced, Republicans produced a letter of support written by 65 women who claim to have known him during his high school days.
The spectacle of powerful women protecting Kavanaugh was designed to disguise the fact that the main reason Trump chose Kavanaugh is his anti-abortion politics, and Trump was fulfilling a campaign promise made to his evangelical base.
In an era in which Republican senators are elderly, white and male, the prominence of women supporters was meant to signal that Kavanaugh is a new kind of younger, male conservative who is not a traditional patriarch. Since the Republican party is losing the support of women, this was an attempt to show that women support Kavanaugh, even though the vast majority of women remain pro-choice.
This spectacle of women supporters was also designed to undercut feminist politics. The women behind him were all elite women happy to be helped by male power that helps them. Rather than a politics that advocates for improving the lives of all women — of all classes, sexualities, genders, races and religions — this is a politics that only serves a few women personally. It is also a cynical strategy of using women to protect a powerful white man whose elite credentials and conservative rulings promise to bring harm to all the other women who are not as powerful or privileged.
The News reported that 10 of his former classmates from Yale Law School worked to help Kavanaugh’s confirmation and some traveled to Washington to testify for him. Yet, the News also mentioned the hundreds of Yale alums (almost a thousand by now) who wrote against his nomination and against the letter of support for Kavanaugh written by Law School Dean Heather Gerken and some Yale Law professors. That protest letter includes over 350 alumnae of the Law School.
The number of women whom Kavanaugh might have helped in their careers pales by comparison to the 150 million women who will bear the impacts of his decisions. Criminalizing abortion will affect millions of low-income women, since the wealthy will be able to travel to places in the world where abortions are legal. He will help overturn the Affordable Care Act, removing accessible and affordable health care for all Americans. His anti-environment, pro-corporate bent will make us all sicker because of dirtier air, water and harmful chemicals. Kavanaugh will enable rulings jeopardizing equality in employment for women, gut voting rights and provide support for immigrant detentions and family separations. The conservative majority in the Supreme Court might approve deeply racist changes in immigration laws and citizenship that the Trump administration wishes to enact. His anti–gun control views will certainly not help the thousands of American women who live with the threat of gun violence by intimate partners in their homes and the over 500 — more than one each day — killed each year by these partners, almost half by guns. Of course, those who are injured are often uncounted.
Using elite women to support Kavanaugh hurts all women, especially since they seem to be supporting someone who might have a sexual assault in his past. It makes women less credible, not just because they appear to be supporting someone who is sure to vote against women’s interests but also because credibility is the key to so many cases of sexual assault. The campaign to appoint Kavanaugh hopes to show feminism as a movement which is just about privileged women breaking the glass ceiling, rather than a broader politics of working for economic, social, sexual and political rights for many groups of women and genders, and for an anti-discrimination and anti-racist politics.
We need this different, broad feminist movement today. Women’s credibility, still not established in law or politics, remains uncertain and cannot be taken for granted. When Christine Blasey Ford appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee, we will see it on the line again.
Inderpal Grewal is a professor in and chair of the Program of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.