WASHINGTON—I dreaded the day of Christine Blasey Ford’s hearing. I was awake well past 2 a.m. the night before, talking to two old friends on the West Coast about Brett Kavanaugh and our own traumatic experiences with men. I was sustained by that precious feeling of sharing with other women, our secret mutual healing. “Save this chat,” my girlfriend said. “We may need it for our testimony.”
On my way to the Hill the next morning to cover the protests against Kavanaugh, I saw women walking to work, their usual routines on a normal day, at the end of weeks of difficult news for anyone who’s been affected by sexual violence. I wondered what was going on in their minds, how many of them were dealing with trauma that morning while still holding their heads high. What were they feeling trapped under?
When I arrived at the Hart Senate office building, which is attached to the building where Kavanaugh’s hearing was taking place, protests were already well under way. The hall, spacious and august with its white marble walls, was filled with people—mostly women, but some men, too. Many were wearing black, holding their fists in the air, some with black tape over their mouths. The space was buzzing with noise from the surrounding spectators, reporters, and other protesters, but the silence emanating from the women with their fists raised felt louder.
Some Senate staffers watched from the balconies of the floors above. In the windows of some offices, staffers had put their own signs up as messages of support to the people gathered below.
As Ford’s testimony began, many protesters crowded around iPhones to watch. Some held their phones to their ears even while talking to others. Bob Bland, the co-president of the Women’s March, kept hers to her ear while I talked to her. I asked her if she had a message for Democrats still on the fence, like Joe Manchin: “Women are watching. We will remember. And we will not stop until every single abuser and abuser enabler, is out of power.” Then, as if answering an unspoken question, she added: “Because I don’t give a shit if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Scattered among the crowd of around 150 were about 20 people with Confirm Kavanaugh or Women for Kavanaugh shirts on, including some men and a couple of teenagers. Most of the times I saw them around the hall, at least one of them was being interviewed by a member of the media. I spoke to one, Anna, who said she was here to “pray” for Kavanaugh. I asked her whether anything that happened today could change her mind about him; she said she didn’t think so. A couple times, I saw them having discussions with anti-Kavanaugh protesters, all of which sounded excruciating. I didn’t stay to listen to many; after all, these views were being well-represented in the hearing room.
Although they certainly weren’t getting the same airtime yesterday, there are women who support abusers, who explain away not just teenagers’ transgressions but also those of politicians they’ll never met. They are women, just as much as women who actually support other women when they ask to be believed. It means we cannot honestly speak in generalities like ‘women are standing against Kavanaugh,’ even if a majority are. Many women—and a majority of white women—still voted for Trump, despite numerous sexual assault and harassment accusations against him.
But these women are a minority, and they are not the people I wanted to hear from yesterday. The people I wanted to hear from most were sexual assault survivors who had come here in hopes of turning their trauma into power, like Ford, people who were fighting the demons inside themselves as well as the demons in the committee room.
Tatiana, a young woman who came to the Hill with Planned Parenthood, told me she was raped when she was just eight years old. For a long time, she didn’t tell anyone; she couldn’t tell her family because “it was family who did it.” But she was here today. “There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t share their stories but I’m here because I can talk about it right now. I don’t like telling my story. I don’t do it because I want to, I do it because I have to.”
I could see Tatiana struggle a little as she told me her story. Her eyes reddened a bit. So did mine. She kept going.
Katie, who was also there with Planned Parenthood, told me the past few weeks had been “emotional” because it’s also so personal for her. “I was raped,” she said, “and it was not my fault.” She said she was a gender studies student and trained sexual assault advocate before her rape, but now, “I live it and I feel it in my veins and my body.”
Katie is from Maine, so she said she was particularly interested in putting pressure on her senator, Susan Collins. I asked if she was optimistic that Collins would listen; she said she hoped so, because she “can’t imagine what life would be like if she didn’t.” How would she feel if Republicans held the hearing and still voted to confirm him? “Hopeless,” she said, because “we’re here, we’re screaming, we’re telling you our stories that are traumatic.” But apart from screaming and telling those stories, all we can do is wait. “Tomorrow, there’s going to be a lot of survivors holding their breath,” she said, because “there’s two roads here and one is very clearly disregarding my experience.”
Dozens of women around the Capitol wore shirts that read “I am a survivor and I vote.” You could see pain etched in the faces of some protesters. I saw one woman watching Ford’s testimony on her iPhone and crying, her male companion with his arm around her. Another woman had one fist in the air and one hand holding her phone, almost perceptibly leaning into the sound of Ford’s testimony, eyes closed, holding her hand towards the heavens, swaying.
Like Ford, who was put through the unimaginable agony of reliving her trauma on national TV—she testified that her attackers’ “laughter” during the assault will forever be seared in her memory—women came to the Capitol to speak up, despite the pain they all carry, and even though Republicans have made it clear they will not listen. Women who have been raped and assaulted, who have been groped and grabbed, who have been catcalled and ridiculed carry the burden of a knowledge most men never grasp, a knowledge we gain without choice by dint of being a woman in this world.
Later, back at Hart, protesters had organized into a circle. They chanted “I am here wrapping my arms around you” and read statements aloud from Ford, Julie Swetnick, and Deborah Ramirez, their chants filling the hall. “I just want the facts to come out—Julie Swetnick,” they recited.
A Capitol Police officer made his way to the center of the circle to break it up, saying: “If you don’t cease and desist, you’ll be arrested.” The group began slowly marching their way toward the exit. The police officer followed. Women began to sing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the civil rights protest anthem.
It was raining hard outside. Not far from where we were standing, Kavanaugh had begun his testimony with defiant, belligerent opening remarks. Protesters filled the street outside the Supreme Court, still chanting and singing. By the time I arrived, there was already a long line of women who were being arrested for their civil disobedience. As I watched, I saw Bob Bland and CNN’s Sally Kohn added to the line.
A woman in a sweatshirt that read “Fuck Trump” knelt down in the road and raised her fist while the others were being arrested. Women cheered her on. She grinned.
As Kavanaugh’s petulant performance rolled on and his Republican colleagues cried on his behalf—the judge strenuously denied all the allegations leveled against him yet again—I wondered what would happen if the hearing didn’t change anything. Where would all this anger go? Earlier that day I had talked to Bonnie, an older protester from DC, who told me: “If he is confirmed, I will have such fury.” Women, she said, “are losing all reason to believe in the law, and when there is no reason for us to believe in the law, why would we respect the law?”
Women are screaming and saying no, and the men of the Republican party are pushing ahead anyway. Having a hearing does not necessitate listening. Christine Ford was credible, eloquent, and accommodating, whereas Kavanaugh displayed the angry arrogance only a man born into extreme privilege and denied, for the first time, an easy path to power can muster. But it wasn’t just about his awful character. His lies—endless, absurd, incredible lies—were gleefully embraced by the Republicans. The lies were the point: To demonstrate that as believable and steely as an abused woman can be even as she strives to remain smiling, helpful, and unthreatening, it very likely won’t matter if there’s a man who says otherwise.
After #MeToo, there was almost no legal action taken against high-profile perpetrators, save Harvey Weinstein himself. While some men’s careers were derailed, still others are poised for their big comeback, complete with a redemption narrative. Yesterday felt like a repetition of that terrible cycle: women shared their pain, dredged up their trauma, and kept brave faces, just as society demands we must do. And for what? The sharing wasn’t the point; airing the grievance wasn’t itself the goal. A sexual assault trauma shared is not a sexual assault trauma halved. Women around the country—led most publicly by Ford’s example—put themselves through that hell for a reason: to stop Kavanaugh. If those in power don’t listen to them, what happened yesterday was just a bunch of brave women putting voice to their trauma. Even if Kavanaugh is only narrowly confirmed, we still have to live with the knowledge that the party in charge of this country tried as hard as possible to silence us all.
What happens now? Where do we channel all this exposed, raw pain? I don’t know how much longer women can put their nightmares on display only to be ignored. I am tired of women having to be brave. I am tired of women having to be as strong as Christine Ford. I am just tired.