Christine Blasey Ford offers powerful testimony in the #MeToo era

Ford describes ‘civic duty’ to share her story, highlighting slow progress decades after Anita Hill’s hearing

Eleven days after stepping forward to accuse Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, after receiving death threats and being forced to relocate from her home, having her email hacked and her life laid bare for the public to interrogate and scrutinize, Dr Christine Blasey Ford walked in to Dirksen Senate Office Building 226 prepared to relive a moment that she said “drastically altered” her life.

The cramped room, limited to a handful of invited guests, including the actor and activist Alyssa Milano and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, fell into an anxious silence as Ford raised her right hand and swore to tell the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

She didn’t want to be there, she told members of the Senate judiciary committee in her first public comments. She was terrified, she said. She came, she said, because it was her “civic duty” to share her story about the “boy who sexually assaulted me” – a man she identified with “100%” certainty as Donald Trump’s second supreme court nominee. Kavanaugh, who testified after her, has forcefully denied the allegation.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to,” Ford said, her voice wavering with emotion as she delivered her remarks. “But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget.”

As Ford read from a prepared statement, she occasionally peered at the dais over large-framed glasses that had slipped down her nose.

The senators – 17 men and only four women – sat facing her in rapt attention. Their fixed gazes were an indication of just how extraordinary this moment was for the Senate, and the nation.

Across the country, Americans tuned in to the live coverage of Ford’s testimony. Donald Trump watched from aboard Air Force One as he traveled back to Washington from New York.

Ford described what she said was a traumatic assault in the summer of 1982. She said a heavily intoxicated Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, locked her in a room during a small house party in Maryland. She said Kavanaugh started to grind his body against hers as he tried to remove her clothing. When she tried to scream, she said he put his hand over her mouth to silence her. Judge said he does not recall the incident.

Her powerful testimony, delivered quietly but firmly, evoked images from the 1991 hearing during the confirmation process for the supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas, when his former colleague, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment with millions of Americans watching around the country. The specter of an all-male panel questioning a black woman prompted a social movement that culminated in 1992 election being declared the “Year of the Woman” – when the number of women in the US Senate doubled.

“Our institutions have not progressed in how they treat women who come forward,” lamented Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was among those women elected to the Senate that year and is now the ranking Democrat on the panel.

“Too often, women’s memories and credibility come under assault,” she continued. “In essence, they are put on trial and forced to defend themselves and often re-victimized in the process.”

Around the Capitol, demonstrators wearing pins that said “I believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford” and “#MeToo” wept openly as they huddled over phones to watch a livestream of the hearing. They crossed with supporters of the judge, who wore shirts emblazoned with “Women for Kavanaugh” and carried signs that read “presumed innocent in America” and “confirm Kavanaugh”.

The side-by-side protests brought into sharp relief how Kavanaugh’s nomination has inflamed a deep cultural divide in today’s #MeToo era of reckoning on sexual assault and harassment.

Democrats have embraced the #MeToo movement and see it as a galvanizing force at the midterm elections this November, which are seen as a referendum on Trump. Already, a record number of Democratic women are running for office and a growing number of female candidates are being considered for a presidential run in 2020.

Republicans, however, have treaded carefully. They’ve stood by Kavanaugh and defended his integrity while stressing that Ford deserved to be heard. On Thursday, they hired a female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to question Kavanaugh and Ford on their behalf.

During the hearing, Mitchell methodically asked Ford what she remembered about the alleged incident. But she was interrupted every five minutes for the Democrats to have their turn to ask questions. Their starkly different approaches was jarring and at times awkward.

In one exchange, Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, who was on the committee during the Hill hearing, asked her to share her strongest memory of the alleged incident. Ford said it was the boys’ laugher.

“Indelible in the hippocampus,” said Ford, who is a research psychologist, “is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

“You are not on trial,” Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat of California, sought to assure Ford. “You are sitting here before members of the United States senate judiciary committee because you have the courage to come forward.”

And in a sign of what has changed in the 27 years since Hill came forward, Harris told Ford: “I believe you.”


Lauren Gambino in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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