Last year, shortly after #MeToo spread as a hashtag and shorthand, a companion phrase also emerged: “Believe women.”
In other words, believe them when they tell stories of assault and harassment. Victims’ lives are rarely made easier by levying accusations against powerful perpetrators, which means that if a woman has come forward, she’s likely doing so at personal cost. So believe her. At the very least, give her the dignity of considering her claims.
On Sunday, a California professor named Christine Blasey Ford identified herself as the previously anonymous accuser claiming Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school. At a party in the 1980s, she said, a drunken Kavanaugh tried to pull off her bathing suit, pinning her down while holding his hand over her mouth. Ford said she remained traumatized enough about the event that she brought it up in therapy in 2012; her therapist provided The Washington Post documentation. Kavanaugh has categorically denied the accusation.
The alleged incident — decades old, lacking forensic evidence — exists in the uncomfortable, unknowable place that a tawdry “Law & Order” episode might have once dismissed as he said, she said.
Now, it’s a test of what it looks like to believe women. And how we decide what we believe. It’s a test of whether, in the past year, we’ve learned anything at all.
It’s easier to say you “believe women” when there are 60 of them and they’re all telling the same story about being drugged by Bill Cosby or assaulted by Harvey Weinstein.
Can you say you believe women when there are only 10 accusers? Only five? Can you say you believe women when there is one accuser, and her account is 35 years old, and she says she doesn’t remember certain details, like the address of the party or who else was there?
Can you say you believe women when it’s deeply inconvenient for you to do so? When your decision to believe her could hinder you from getting other things you want? A few weeks ago, a reader emailed me saying he really missed seeing Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose on television. The reader was angry at all the women who had accused them of harassment. He was inclined to disbelieve these women, in fact, with a rationale mostly related to his own sense of nuisance: His mornings were more pleasant when Matt Lauer was on the air.
What about when it’s not Matt Lauer — when it’s a Supreme Court nominee? What about when the nominee’s confirmation vote is scheduled in the Senate Judiciary Committee? What about when you’re a Republican senator, and you think the accused man can be the kind of justice that America desperately needs, and all you have to do to get him on the bench is to decide that this particular woman is lying?
Are you willing to believe one woman if it means explicitly, definitively not believing one man? How many women’s testimonies are worth one man’s protestations? In the long list of vastly important issues facing America today, where do you place “believing women”? Is it above or below, say, “climate change” or “upholding Citizens United”?
These aren’t meant to be leading or accusatory questions. They’re not even really about Brett Kavanaugh. They’re about what it means to develop your personal moral code when cases are deeply messy, as these types of cases often are. These questions are about forcing yourself, honestly, to imagine what standards you would be applying if the accused was from a different political party. Or if the accuser was. Or if the timing was of the accusation was different. Or, or, or.
Would you find this accusation credible if it were levied against Colin Kaepernick? Bill Clinton? A boss you loved? A boss you hated? If your answers would change depending on these circumstances, you’re not really interested in believing women. You’re interested in how their pain can be useful to your politics.
Please note that I haven’t written a word about whether Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth. Please note that I haven’t written a word about whether, if the accusations were true, Kavanaugh’s nomination should be rescinded.
You don’t have to have an opinion yet on whether she’s telling the truth to have an opinion on whether the charge should be investigated. That’s how the Senate can show it believes women. By saying, We believe women’s stories should be heard. We believe this is a serious enough topic to deserve our attention.
During Kavanaugh’s four days of grilling before the Judiciary Committee, he was asked multiple times about gender equality, and sexual harassment, and the treatment of women. He said it was a “broad national problem that needs to be addressed, including in the judiciary.”
He’s right. He’s absolutely right.
In this instance, you don’t even have to believe women to do the right thing. Just believe him.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”