In his first appearance before the nation, Judge Brett Kavanaugh positioned himself as an ally of social change for women in America. Standing beside President Donald Trump at the White House, Kavanaugh spoke of being a father of daughters and a coach to a girls basketball team. He hailed his mother’s legal career. He boasted that most of his clerks had been women.
Coming in the era of #MeToo and the Women’s March, of greater attention to wage inequality for women and campus sexual assaults, Kavanaugh was trying to reassure the many women around the country who may have been assessing him, and the president beside him, warily. He was, after all, a 53-year-old jurist and ambitious veteran of Republican politics who would be a potentially decisive vote on litigation over women’s rights — including the right to terminate a pregnancy.
But if Kavanaugh’s nomination was freighted with import for women, the battle over his confirmation has swelled into an event of titanic consequence in the country’s evolution on matters of gender and women’s equality. A judge who could well overturn Roe v. Wade — handpicked by a president who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct — now faces an accusation of sexual assault that has plunged the Senate into chaos less than seven weeks before an election. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.
The fate of his nomination and the Senate’s treatment of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who said Saturday that she was willing to testify in the coming week, have the makings of a pivotal point in U.S. politics — the crest of a wave building since Trump’s election. Women have marched and voted in powerful numbers. They have run for office with record-breaking success. And women of all political stripes have come forward with new confidence to identify and challenge men who have exploited them. Blasey, a 51-year-old California professor, was 15 at the time of the alleged assault.
The likely public testimony by Blasey and Kavanaugh would be a wrenching apex in the decadeslong struggle over the legal and social status of U.S. women, unfolding in the shadow of a presidency that has profoundly alienated many women.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, which opposes Kavanaugh’s nomination, described the confirmation struggle and the Senate’s handling of Blasey’s allegation as a clarifying moment and a test for the country.
“This is a distillation of the entire two years’ trajectory for women in this country,” Laguens said. “Are we respected? Are we believed? Are we equal?”
Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, said the Senate’s reaction to Blasey’s account had already exposed an enormous gulf between the country’s political institutions and the outlook of many U.S. women. Graves warned that attacks on Blasey would leave a deep mark on the country.
“It’s not just a message about Dr. Blasey Ford, it’s about survivors and about women,” Graves said. “And if they ignore that, I do not see how that is something that goes away fast. It will be a stain that they carry for a very long time.”
With Blasey’s saying she wants to testify before the Senate, her appearance would represent a moment of extreme peril for Republicans who control the Judiciary Committee — an all-male panel, on the Republican side, where most members have answered Blasey’s allegation with suspicion or resentment.
Underscoring the potential for backlash from women, a Republican staff member for the committee, Garrett Ventry, resigned Saturday after NBC News inquired about allegations of sexual harassment involving him.
Yet Republicans — including conservative women — have been deeply resistant to reconsidering Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Their determination to confirm him may put Republicans at odds with the clear tide in U.S. politics since Trump’s election. The victory of a man captured on tape boasting about groping women, over a candidate who would have been the first female president, touched off an anguished backlash among women that has fueled mass marches and huge turnout among female voters as well as the record number of female candidates.
But if the cultural mood of the country has appeared to turn strongly in favor of a progressive women’s rights agenda, Kavanaugh’s nomination is also the pinnacle of a different social movement: the 45-year quest by activists on the right to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court decision that made abortion legal nationwide. For decades, tens of thousands of people have participated in the annual March for Life, and 2 in 5 women believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, according to the Pew Research Center.
And allies of Kavanaugh say they are unwilling to back down over a single accusation they distrust, and one that comes after a contentious and highly partisan nomination hearing, calling the stakes far too high.
“The left wants this to be about the veracity of #MeToo, but it’s not,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a group that led a “Women for Kavanaugh” bus tour this summer. “The election was about the direction of the country. This was a reckoning of what was promised. There’s been millions of dollars spent, thousands of volunteer hours spent on behalf of this nominee; it’s finally coming to the vote.”
At stake for conservatives are not only future court decisions to restrict abortion rights but also decisions to advance religious liberty laws and define the rights of gay and transgender Americans.
Rebecca Hagelin, a conservative columnist backing Kavanaugh, cast the allegation and the way it has been handled as a last-ditch effort to derail the court’s pivotal fifth conservative voice. If the issue at stake were primarily women’s rights, she says, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would have raised Blasey’s allegation earlier in the summer for better due process.
“They further discredit the entire #MeToo movement if they take down an innocent man,” said Hagelin, a former vice president of the Heritage Foundation. “If the nomination goes through, it will be a victory for anybody who has ever been falsely charged with some sexual abuse accusation.”
Critics of Kavanaugh’s nomination, who overwhelmingly believe Blasey’s claims, say her allegation has brought the significance of his nomination into sharper focus, after months of efforts by Kavanaugh allies to play down its potential impact on women. A poll published Friday by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found more Americans now oppose Kavanaugh than support him.
Among women, just 28 percent supported Kavanaugh while 42 percent were opposed, including half of college-educated women. That Kavanaugh would become such a contentious figure is in some ways a bitter irony for his supporters. The president selected him over several contenders including Amy Coney Barrett, an appellate judge who is seen as a ferocious opponent of abortion. Hewing to the practice of other recent Supreme Court nominees, Kavanaugh declined throughout his confirmation hearings to address his views on Roe v. Wade.
Yet Kavanaugh’s nomination was entangled with the politics of sex and gender: He was scrutinized over memos he wrote, as an investigator examining Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, that recommended graphic, even anatomical lines of questioning.
Kavanaugh faced questions about his relationship with Alex Kozinski, a mentor of his who abruptly retired as a judge last year amid extensive allegations that he had harassed female clerks. Kavanaugh said he had no knowledge of that behavior.
In a highly contentious case last year, Kavanaugh ruled against a teenager who, as an unauthorized immigrant, was seeking to obtain an abortion while in government custody. Kavanaugh reversed a lower court’s ruling — which was later reinstated — that would have allowed the woman to get an abortion immediately, instead permitting the government to take more time seeking a sponsor to facilitate the procedure.
Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, who litigated the case on behalf of the minor, said it had revealed how Kavanaugh or another nominee could “eliminate access to abortion.”
“All of these decisions about women’s ability to make decisions about their bodies, to protect their bodies, are connected,” Amiri said, alluding to Blasey’s account.
But it is the rhetoric around sexual assault, and Senate Republicans’ questionable openness to considering Blasey’s story, that appears most likely to make the ordinarily dry process of confirming a justice a source of lasting division and even trauma.
Several important Republican leaders, led by Trump, have spoken with open contempt about Blasey, who said in a Washington Post interview that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand and sought to remove her clothes by force during a party in high school.
Trump — who has consistently expressed skepticism or hostility toward women who accuse men, including him, of sexual misconduct — has been dismissive of Blasey. The president wrote on Twitter on Friday that she surely would have filed charges decades ago if the assault “was as bad as she says.”
In North Dakota, where an important Senate race is unfolding and opposition to abortion runs strong, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican challenging Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, waved aside Blasey’s claims in a radio interview Friday. “They were drunk,” Cramer said. “Nothing evidently happened in it all, even by her own accusation.”
And Republicans in the Senate, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, have largely vowed to confirm Kavanaugh even as they offer Blasey a limited window to testify.
Tarana Burke, who created the #MeToo movement for survivors of sexual assault, said the response to Blasey from congressional Republicans represented a painful contrast with a larger cultural moment in which women have gained new confidence to confront harassment and abuse by men.
Invoking the last Supreme Court nomination to turn on allegations of sexual misconduct, Burke said the current process might be more wrenching than the 1991 hearings involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.
“It feels almost worse, because we have social media this time around to see vocal pushback from the people around the country,” Burke said, “and we still have an unresponsive set of politicians.”