Back in the 1970s, the Philip Morris company tried to capitalize on the emergence of what was then usually referred to as the “women’s liberation movement” to sell tobacco products, particularly a brand of cigarettes called “Virginia Slims”, which were supposed to be sort of long and elegant in a feminine kind of way. The idea was to portray smoking as an act of female empowerment, and to help the cause, they were pleased to offer a brand designed specially for women. Yay. The hottest super models of the era were hired to flog this merchandise, notables like Cheryl Tiegs, all decked out in the latest hip fashions (see, they weren’t deadly and disgusting disease delivery systems, ladies, they were style items). Logically, the higher dosages delivered by those purportedly graceful, extra long smokes should have been that much more carcinogenic (though, the ads stressed, they were thinner than those clumsy fat man cigarettes, perhaps balancing things out a bit), but even more risibly cynical than using feminism to woo young women into what were presumably more stylish and liberated tumours was the bouncy slogan they came up with: You’ve come a long way, baby. Only God knows what Madison Avenue outfit came up with that ham-fisted attempt at galvanizing demand among the newly empowered, modern career women of the moment – that little “baby” on the end made it sound like something a guy with a bad toupee in a polyester suit and platform shoes would have said to an elaborately bored and utterly uninterested cocktail waitress. They might just as well have plastered their ridonculous faux-feminist pitches with something like Onward and upward, sweet cheeks!, or Good goin’, honey britches!
Apparently, despite having come a long way, there was still a ways yet to go.
Nothing says strong and independent like smoking yourself to death, baby! Sure, the whole campaign was pretty silly, but it was way back in the 1970s. Everything was silly back then. Remember the hairstyles? The harvest gold shag rugs and avocado refrigerators? Disco? Charlie’s Angels? The boat-like two ton land cruisers with electric everything coming off the lines at GM, Ford, and Chrysler, as if the oil crisis hadn’t happened? All silly. It was early days, though. The movement was just getting started.
Yet while time passed, not a lot changed, not really. We saw how little in 1991, when a young African-American lawyer named Anita Hill was subjected to withering white male abuse for coming forward with complaints of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She’d been an attorney-adviser to Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and again later when he was chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She claimed, quite credibly in retrospect, that throughout her time under his supervision he’d subjected her to relentless, almost brutal sexual harassment.
It’s now widely acknowledged, even by some of the relevant former Senators, that the treatment Ms. Hill received at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee was absolutely disgraceful. The cable news outlets have been playing the tapes over the past few days, and they’re hard to watch, as she struggles to maintain her composure while being forced to repeat the most lurid and painful details of her testimony, and responds to questions that were obviously intended to impugn her character while making her shrivel up and die from embarrassment. Given the choice, you’d be well advised to watch somebody drown kittens in a barrel instead. Her interrogators – and hostile interrogators they were – were all men, of course, and all white, and even Democrats like Joe Biden, who then ran the Committee, did poor Anita no favours; but it was the Republicans who were most disgusting, men like Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, who seemed prematurely old and antediluvian even then.
Such was the disappointing world at the end of the first Bush administration. Fifteen years after Philip Morris was touting how far women had come, a female with the temerity to bring up something awkward like sexual harassment, making waves while the boys were busy trying to get their guy on the bench, could damn well sit there and take her lumps. She was lucky they let her speak at all.
But times do change, right, even if it takes longer than anybody might have thought? It certainly seemed that way, for a while – one could have been forgiven for imagining, in subsequent years, that women really were, finally, making substantial progress toward social equality, just as race relations might have seemed to have been heading in the right direction following the election of an African-American to the White House. These days, of course, the whole idea of meaningful change seems more like a cruel joke. It’s perhaps possible to be a little too pessimistic in the heat of the present moment, but it sure does start to look as if all we got out of Barack Obama’s tenure was an enraged, reactionary white backlash, and looking around at the ongoing dearth of women in the upper echelons of politics and the professions, not to mention the installation of a known misogynist and sex offender at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (who’s very, very Caucasian and plainly racist to boot), it sure feels as if women haven’t exactly arrived at the promised land, either. And may God help you if you’re a woman of colour.
It should probably come as no great shock, then, that the confirmation of the latest candidate for the Supreme Court affords us an opportunity to witness an eerie replay of the dismal events of long-ago 1991. It does anyway though, doesn’t it? Here we are in 2018, watching the Senate work just as fast as it can to rush an apparent cookie-cutter Caucasian dude named Brett Kavanaugh through the Supreme Court confirmation process, and damned if a woman doesn’t show up to play skunk at the garden party again, and damned if the majority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee aren’t still a bunch of grumpy old white men looking to shut her up. It’s better than that, though: two of them, believe it or not, are the very same grumpy old white men, older and more antediluvian than ever, still glowering over their desks like malevolent lizards ready to hiss at the inconvenient female. Despite any hopeful expectation that the both of them would be on the other side of the lawn by now, there they sit, Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, too mean to die, too stupid to change.
This was them back in the day:
And here they are now:
The female victim this time around is a professor named Christine Blasey Ford, who was just 15 when, by her account, a 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh, drunk almost to the point of something akin to non-insane automatism – which sorry, buddy, no excuse – pinned her on a bed, covered her face with a suffocating palm, and proceeded to attempt to rape her. She says that as she struggled to draw breath, she thought for a moment that he might inadvertently end up killing her, but luckily managed to break free.
The incident is said to have occurred at a house party 36 years ago, a long time past, it’s true, and the issues raised by this sort of allegation, if uncorroborated, are difficult. Two things though:
- despite the prospect of a false and out-of-the-blue accusation of sexual misconduct being every red-blooded male’s worst irrational nightmare (trust me, I have the same knee-jerk reaction in these cases as every other guy: what’s to stop some random woman from doing that to me?), the reality is that such happens very, very rarely. Studies repeatedly show that for every false claim there are 95-100 real ones, most of which go unreported, and a purely made-up story of this kind, so full of harrowing detail, isn’t at all likely in any case, let alone when motive is absent, the upside of fabrication is nil, and the cost of coming forward is punishingly high; and
- who says it’s uncorroborated? That’s the Republican narrative, but the accuser in this case is pleading for an FBI investigation, and it’s already coming out that this is by no means the first time the woman has related the story, having told it in the past both to confidants and her therapist. The Republicans, refusing to launch any sort of probe, are obviously desperate to avoid finding out what the bloodhounds in the FBI might dig up, just as they’re keen to ignore possible witnesses, and downplay the results of the lie detector test that Blasey Ford was willing to take, which showed her to be truthful.
Only we men need such things explained to us.
Besides, if I may don my kangaroo suit for a moment here, this guy Kavanaugh sure looks the part, doesn’t he? He’s got one of those faces, all white and privileged and preppy and priggish, perhaps not quite fit for the cover of John Oliver’s unfortunately fictional World’s Most Punchable Face Weekly, in the manner of these quite similar specimens:
…but still a beaming mug that’s every bit as nauseating in its own way. Just one look at the guy is practically all it takes:
Whoo boy. Surely, by now, all women, even white women married to Republican men, must be sick to death of living in a world governed solely by and for the benefit of this crew.
Look, I know this is serious stuff, and no matter one’s political sympathies, it’s just not on to be flippant about whether you think some jurist actually did sexually assault an adolescent girl back when the both of them were teenagers. It’s a dire accusation, the making of which must now have dire consequences for the both of them. I understand. But I believe Ms. Blasey Ford. I believe her on general principles, and I believe her precisely because the price for coming forward is going to be so very dire, and already has been, actually. The sadly predictable on-line abuse and death threats have already put her in fear of her safety, and the news is that her family has, in effect, gone on the lam, having left the home where anybody could find them to hole up somewhere safer. This is what it comes to when a woman stands up. Still. In 2018. This is what women face.
Is it any wonder she’d hoped, vainly, to remain anonymous? Can you even imagine how it now feels for her to contemplate showing up in front of the cameras, to be grilled by the ruthless grey men of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or, as seems more likely based on the latest reports, by some surrogate interrogator, probably a woman – better optics, and all that – chosen to do the dirty work on their behalf? Apparently, she’s willing to swallow hard and do so. She’ll have to sit there, look into their merciless eyes, and tell her story while they scowl, shift uncomfortably in their chairs, and give off that cruel, self-satisfied vibe that doesn’t so much say we don’t believe you as mutter so what if it’s true? If that’s what it takes, she’ll do it. What does that tell you?
So yeah, I believe her. Now it’s true, I hate Brett Kavanaugh anyway, and I suppose that kills my objectivity. I can’t help myself. I’m not saying it’s necessarily decent, or rational, or fair. I just do. I hate everything about the insufferable prick, and hated him long before anything relating to the present accusations came to light. From where I sit he’s a symptom of everything that’s wrong with the modern political process and the society it creates, and stands for everything I’ve come to despise – he’s just such an archetypal privileged, white, upper class, right-wing tool of the monied elites, and it shouldn’t be necessary to credibly accuse him of attempted rape to create even a remote possibility that he’ll be kept off the court. It should be enough that he wants to deny women the right to make their own reproductive decisions. It should be enough that he thinks the president is above the law. It should be enough that he lies under oath, which he does, and I encourage any reader who doubts it to look into his testimony during his previous confirmations for lower court positions, as well as that given over the past month – there’s plenty of detailed analysis out there.
No, our Brett shouldn’t be up for the Supreme Court in the first place. Nominating this oh-so-typical Republican white man was a dickish right-wing move from the get-go, plain and simple. It’s all about getting their digs in while they still can. It’s practically a smash-and-grab at this point. They may be on the way out, but before the Blue Wave hits and the demographics shift permanently against their kind, they’ll stack the benches on all the courts with like-minded defenders of the faith, and cement their gains for decades to come.
At the moment, at least, it therefore seems as if Kavanaugh is going to come through this just fine, and take his lifetime seat on the highest court in the land, just as Clarence Thomas did before him. Once there, he can go about the business of turning back the clock on women’s rights, civil rights, worker’s rights, regulation of corporations and financial institutions, health care, immigration, and whatever else comes his way (and don’t forget, these guys get to decide what comes their way, to a very large extent). Maybe – probably? – he’ll even get his chance to fulfill his primary mission and insulate Trump and his kin from the consequences of their flagrant illegalities. That can serve as an early highlight in an interminable career that the Constitution decrees will last until he finally expires, and they plant him underneath what I’m sure will be a great big granite monument to his greatness.
Today, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was assuring the audience at this year’s Values Voters Summit – Jesus Christ, those evangelical hypocrites are kind to themselves, values voters, yeah, why not, I guess fascism is a system of values, after all – that they needn’t worry, Kavanaugh will be confirmed, come Hell or high water. Clearly, he’s keen to hear Ms. Blasey Ford’s testimony before passing judgment. Likewise the above-pictured Committee member Orrin Hatch, who’s already gone on the record that the misguided woman, “whoever she is”, must be confused or something. Committee Chair Grassley is pulling the usual smug, bullying maneuvers, and now The Donald, having managed to keep a sock in it all week, is finally dropping his typically ignorant incendiary tweet bombs:
Yup, that’s how it works, Donny. Traumatized sexual assault victims, confident in the humanity and sympathy of the relevant authorities, secure in their own perceived credibility, and unconcerned about the skepticism, derision, and “she was probably asking for it anyway” attitudes that only the exceptionally timid would find daunting, tend generally to run right down to the local precinct to report these things. If this teenager didn’t, well, ’nuff said, right? Anyway, after 36 years, she should just shut up and let the poor Judge alone. Coming out of the woodwork at this point just isn’t fair. SAD!
So how much longer are women going to take this shit, anyway?
Perhaps we’ll find out come November.