It was 7:30 on a Saturday morning when Virginia Thomas, who goes by Ginni, picked up the telephone and called Anita Hill, who had accused her husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. Hill did not answer, and so Ginni Thomas left a message: “Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love for you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
The ominous call and priggish voicemail left by Ginni Thomas arrived not in the stormy and fitful throes of Thomas’s confirmation hearings. It was recorded on October 9, 2010, a full 19 years after the Thomas-Hill saga unfolded before a riven America.
The phone call is important to consider at this similarly vitriolic moment, when another woman, the accomplished and reticent Professor Christine Blasey Ford, has accused another Supreme Court nominee, the smug and smarmy Judge Brett Kavanaugh, of sexually assaulting her. The incident is alleged to have happened when the two were in high school in suburban Maryland; according to Ford, a witness, whose intervention ultimately permitted Ford to escape, was also present. Ford says she has notes from a therapist from 2012 that corroborate the bulk of her story. Beyond the frenzied speculation of whether or not Ford’s testimony will be able to sway the doddering men of the Republican end of the Senate Judiciary Committee is the issue of what sort of future awaits women who come forward to expose the grimy pasts of powerful men.
Judging the veracity of women who allege sexual assault has, in the United States, been erected on an impossibility—the production of a perfect victim. The media and the various PACs and posses of conservative operatives have already gotten to work attacking Ford. The White House has dismissed her as a liar; conservative commentator Tomi Lahren implied that she was an opportunist; and a Wall Street Journal editorial not only impugns her but suggests that going to therapy can result in invented memories. The Senatorial cavalry of male entitlement is also getting into gear, chief among them Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who in his scowling questioning of Hill implied that she was working with “slick lawyers” and Democratic operatives to ensure that Thomas did not get on the Court.
The hearing will likely come on Monday, and an out-resourced Ford will have the chance to bravely confront the man who allegedly assaulted her and tell her story while the GOP’s all-male section of the Senate Judiciary Committee waits to shred her to bits—it’s no wonder she’s disinclined to testify. Hatch has already sounded the herald, declaring Ford was “mistaken” in her recollection of who was at the party in question. His long-time pals Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Mitch McConnell, who assisted Hatch in the slicing and dicing of Hill, will likely also play leading roles—all part of the pack of aged avengers of Kavanaugh.
Ford was reluctant to come forward, knowing the venom that would be directed her way for standing in the path between Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court. After all, what sort of life is available to a woman who has accused a powerful man of sexual assault? Ginni Thomas’s phone call, coming 19 years after Thomas had been confirmed, points to the long-term danger that accrues to women like Ford. Those hazards are only amplified in our age of social media and online cruelty. The dark corners of the web are filled with forums that routinely popularize the targeting of women, particularly feminists, providing their addresses, cell-phone numbers, names of children and spouses, and even details of their routines. Ford, the Anita Hill of our age, could face all of this and more. Already, Ford is getting death threats that have forced her family into hiding, and though she expected some of the abuse before going public, it cannot be easy to bear.
Even if Ford can survive the possible persecution for having gone up against a nominated Supreme Court Justice, she will likely never regain the anonymity that she once had, particularly if Kavanaugh does get confirmed. Living in a country that disrespects women is hard; living in a country that has anointed the man who attempted to rape you to the highest judicial office in the land may be impossible.
Given the extent of the persecution, Ford could consider applying for political asylum in a country less inclined to reward sexual violence. Citizens of the United States can do just that in many countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, France, Cape Verde, and many more. Among the many who try (particularly given the recent depredations of the Trump administration), Ford would have a compelling case. Having an enemy that presides over the highest court in the United States, the court whose word is the final say, ostensibly means that Ford cannot turn to the justice system for any recourse or protection in the United States. This would be plenty evidence of persecution in most of these countries.
For the rest of us not directly in the line of fire, this is an urgent moment of truth. Whether or not Kavanaugh will be confirmed will likely depend on whether the de-misogynization of institutions that has been the work of the #MeToo movement has pushed male conservatives in the Senate to consider the political necessity of leaning less toward accused men and more toward victimized women.
If Kavanaugh does become the fifth conservative Supreme Court justice, the future of women in an America whose institutions and leaders continue to be entombed in misogyny is devastatingly bleak. If #MeToo can only unseat entertainment executives and television anchors, and fails against Supreme Court nominees, then it and the women who support it will continue to remain at the periphery, permitting the center, occupied by men, to hold.