Open yet measured, expert but obliging, Ford tried to be the perfect witness. But why do we ask so much of women’s testimony?by Charlotte Lydia Riley / September 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
Watching Professor Christine Blasey Ford testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday afternoon as to an alleged assault by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, which she claims took place while she was a teenager, was amazing and horrifying in equal measure. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.)
Amazing, because watching Ford on the stand is to be astounded by her competency and intelligence. She speaks quietly, but firmly; when her voice breaks or waivers, she pauses and then moves on.
But it is horrifying to watch, too, as a professional and polished woman was forced to tell her story of assault in excruciating detail in order to pursue what she sees as justice.
Not criminal justice—the statute of limitations put paid to that. And certainly not personal justice for Ford, forced to drag open her life live on television and broadcast around the world.
Ford is fighting for what she sees as political justice, to prevent Kavanaugh’s appointment to one of the most important positions in the American legal and constitutional system.
Ford has been accused by many in America of being motivated by partisanship or, at the very least, of being a stooge of partisan forces—the assumption being that she is a Democrat, or being used by the Democrats.
But she talked clearly about her motivations about coming forward: she said she had agonised about it, had weighed up, carefully, the public interest against the potential cost to herself. She said she had written her initial letter in confidence and had wanted to make her intervention before Kavanaugh was the sole nominee, so that his appointment could be stopped early in the process.
Once Kavanaugh seemed to be the sole appointee, Ford said, she initially thought there was no point in coming forward; she didn’t want to stand in front of a train that wasn’t going to stop anyway. She says she only agreed to go public when reporters came to her house and her workplace, with one reporter even attending one of her graduate seminars.
As a female academic myself, that detail—a reporter sitting in a graduate seminar class, posing as a student, to get access to a woman’s personal trauma—made my blood run cold.
Ford used the language of being helpful several times. She characterised her initial letter and her testimony to the committee as an attempt to be such. When she was asked about her desire for an FBI investigation into the assault, she said that it was true that this was something she wanted—even though it might find Kavanaugh innocent—because “I feel like I could be more helpful.”
For the women watching worldwide, the image of Ford ripping open the story of her past, and her life, to be “helpful” in this way felt like a violent illustration of the burdens of patriarchy carried by women in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the world.
Ford said that her responsibility was to tell the truth. At some moments of testimony, she drew on her knowledge and training as a professor of psychology to make her point or support her evidence.
She invoked sequelae, and norepinephrine, and the hippocampus in her testimony to explain how her memory had been working and how the events in question had affected her. This invocation of her own expertise was striking.
At one point, she was asked about the interaction between memory and PTSD and she responded, “I think that’s a great question”: the standard initial response of academics at conferences all over the world.
Her performance of knowledge demonstrated that she was academically brilliant—she has published her work in academic journals and teaches graduate students in a consortium with Stanford—and perhaps this brilliance gave her a credibility.
Of course, clever women—particularly women who engage with issues intellectually rather than emotionally, and even more specifically women who are capable of dealing with the details of assault through academic expertise, rather than emotion—are not always considered trustworthy. But women in academia are used to having to perform, publicly, their expertise.
At one point during her testimony, Ford said “I’m used to being collegial” to explain her willingness to accommodate the committee’s desires about the timing of a break.
Of course she is used to being collegial. She is a woman in academia, in a male-dominated field, in a profession which cannibalises female willingness to help and emotional labour. At times in her testimony she smiled, or even laughed.
Watching her testimony, I could see the work she was doing to smooth over proceedings, to make people feel comfortable witnessing her trauma. It was clear, and powerful, and heartbreaking.
Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday that Brett Kavanaugh was a ‘fine person’ and asked for people to pray for him and his family. The New York Times tweeted during the testimony to ask: “Christine Blasey Ford is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Do you find her testimony credible?”
Attached was a poll, with the options “Yes,” “No” or “Unsure.” (They have since apologised and deleted the tweet.)
It was clear that Ford knew that many people either wouldn’t be convinced by her testimony—or wouldn’t care even if it were true. It was clear also that she understood the burden placed on assault victims to be perfect witnesses. And she delivered: she was a superhero. But she shouldn’t have had to be.
The hearing result is expected on Friday.