Confirmation hearings will begin this week for Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative jurist chosen to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.
His appointment, would radically alter the composition of the US Supreme Court, shifting it sharply to the right, to the delight of most Republicans.
But last week, the march to confirmation seemed in peril after Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California, came forward with credible allegations that, when she was 15 and Kavanaugh was 17, he had attacked and attempted to rape her.
Rather than slow down and investigate, however, Republicans seem intent on moving full-speed ahead. More than that, they’ve engaged in the sort of anti-victim politics that, in the #MeToo era, seem strangely out of step.
From Trump’s tweets asking why she failed to report the assault at the time to comments dismissing the actions as “horseplay”, the Republican response sounds not so different from the response to Anita Hill when she described her experiences of workplace harassment during Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings.
Those strong parallels — both Ford and Hill are professors, both accused conservative jurists, both faced intense backlash — raise a troubling question: despite second-wave feminism, despite #MeToo, is it possible not much has really changed since Hill testified more than 25 years ago?
At the time of Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment was not well-defined or understood. There was not yet a culture of workplace training surrounding discrimination and harassment. It was Hill who helped force that cultural shift, calling attention to the ways men abused their power in professional settings.
Her testimony — and Thomas’s confirmation in spite of that testimony — also remade Congress. The next year’s elections were commonly known as the Year of the Woman, as three women won election to the Senate and 24 to the House. Small numbers, to be sure, but when Anita Hill testified, only two of the 100 Senators were women; by mid-1993, 6 were. (Twenty-five years later, there are 23 women Senators, an all-time high.)
The legal system has changed as well. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which provided billions of dollars to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. At the same time, states pushed to outlaw spousal rape, which in many states had been deemed legally impossible, because marriage was considered to imply consent.
Even the court itself has changed, expanding from one woman justice to three.
So much has changed that it’s hard to understand how, exactly, we find ourselves in such a similar position. If Ford decides to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she will find herself questioned by a judiciary committee in which all 11 Republican members are white men — just as Anita Hill was.
The reason for the strong parallels between Ford and Hill is not that nothing has changed — it’s that the change has been asymmetrical. Back in 1991, it wasn’t just the Republicans on the judiciary committee who were all men. The Democrats were, too. A year later, a man who would face several credible sexual harassment allegations was elected president: Democrat Bill Clinton. His accusers faced a harsh smear campaign run by Democratic operatives.
But while the Republican Party has in recent years doubled-down on its anti-female politics, the Democrats have veered sharply in the other direction. The party has embraced reproductive rights, health care, education funding, social welfare, and environmental policy. It has also elevated women far more frequently than the Republican Party has. Of the 23 women in the Senate, 17 are Democrats. Nancy Pelosi served as the first woman Speaker of the House, and Hillary Clinton as the first woman presidential nominee from a major party.
That gender divide is reflected in the voter base of each party . Some 56 per cent of women identify as Democrats, while only 37 per cent are Republicans. That matters not only because the Democratic Party has more of an incentive to appeal to female voters, but the Republican Party has less of an incentive (just like the GOP has less of an incentive to appeal to non-white voters, having determined that its future rests primarily with the white vote).
As a result, the GOP has increasingly not only ignored the political preferences of most women voters, but has also embraced politicians who do not appeal to women voters. Thus men like Donald Trump, who has openly bragged about sexual assault, have emerged as party leaders, and the GOP has done little to punish officeholders who engage in sexual harassment or assault.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have shed important politicians like Al Franken and John Conyers, because they realise their base demands accountability for misogynistic and predatory men.
That’s how it is that 27 years after Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas, we find ourselves in such a similar spot. Not because nothing has changed, but because only one party has. With the midterm elections looming, the Kavanaugh hearings will provide a stark example of that divide, with potentially disastrous consequences for the GOP.