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Why the Kavanaugh Hearings Hit Home

January 9, 2019

Roz Bahrami

In late September, Prof. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with historic allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the context of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Riveted, a global audience tuned in to watch their respective testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The rhetoric on both sides ratcheted up. The world watched.

The dynamics at play in the Kavanaugh hearings were unpleasantly familiar to me, as they were to many women. In the past 12 months alone, I have acted for three young lawyers or law students who were harassed by senior and respected members of the bar. Like Blasey Ford, these women paid a steep personal price for calling out sexual misconduct, even in this #MeToo era.

Their stories differed, but their goals were the same: to protect themselves and others without sacrificing themselves in the process. As young women in positions of relative powerlessness, they knew the stakes of taking on a senior partner. A few behind-the-scenes comments about competence or character can be all that it takes to both discredit allegations and derail a career. Still, they wanted to do the right thing. Although their respective allegations of harassment were all substantiated (and then promptly buried by confidentiality agreements), they all ended up changing jobs in the end. Most of the men continue to practise unscathed. And I count these as “good” outcomes.

As the Kavanaugh hearings unfolded, the story seemed all too familiar.

The ostensible purpose of the hearing was to determine Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the United States. But as the all-male Republican faction on the committee fed questions to a “female assistant” and Kavanaugh drew head-scratching praise from Senator Lindsey Graham for his half-crazed rantings about political “hit jobs,” it started to feel like there was something bigger at stake. In many ways, the process became a litmus test for just how far the women’s movement has (or has not) carried us. And when it became clear that the old, patriarchal system would prevail yet again, an outpouring of rage quickly followed.

Canadian women were not immune to this rage. To the contrary, many felt it acutely. The anger bubbled up on social media (I may have issued an impetuous call to “burn it all down”). It found voice in daily interactions. Among women lawyers, the sense of disempowerment was particularly acute. We are taught to trust in the process and fairness, but those ideals, it seemed, had failed us. But why did we take it so personally?

Most obviously, there are countless among us who have experienced sexual violence. Unlike the women I represent, most have chosen to keep quiet. The reasons behind their silence are both deeply personal and depressingly universal. Shame. Self-blame. Fear of not being believed. Fear of repercussions.

These experiences made it excruciating to watch as every rape myth in the book was trotted out to discredit Ford: her delayed report (even though the doctrine of recent complaint was thrown out years ago); her incomplete memory (even though neuroscience tells us that memories of trauma are more sensorial than visual; in other words, the sound of laughter is precisely the type of thing you are likely to remember); the suggestion that there was no evidence to support her allegations (even though testimony *is* evidence). It was not hard for the viewer to imagine personal experiences being discounted in the same heartbreaking way.

But the emotion unleashed by the Kavanaugh hearings was about more than just sexual assault. It was also a reaction to the systemic imbalance of power on display.

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Editor’s Note: This article by Gillian Hnatiw, titled “Why the Kavanaugh Hearings Hit Home” was originally published January 7, 2019, on Canadian Lawyer. It can be found here.

GillianGillian Hnatiw is a partner at Adair Goldblatt Bieber LLP and a litigator practising in administrative law, professional regulation and liability, health law, employment disputes, general commercial litigation, and appeals. She is one of Canada’s foremost practitioners in the areas of sexual assault, harassment and violence, including claims for voyeurism, ‘revenge porn’ and the non-consensual disemmination of intimate images.