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Women watching Kavanaugh controversy very closely

After the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings gave the country a window into workplace sexual harassment — and featured a committee composed entirely of white men sceptically questioning the African-American woman detailing what she suffered at Thomas's hands — the next election, in 1992, was dubbed “The Year of the Woman”.

That year, 24 women were newly elected to the House, and the number of women in the Senate tripled — from two, all the way to six.

We are still a long way from gender equality in Congress, just as we are in most important institutions. But even before Brett Kavanaugh's nomination was upended by California professor Christine Blasey Ford's charge that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s, the year 2018 was already a record one for women candidates, with 16 gubernatorial nominees, 22 Senate nominees and 234 winning their parties' nomination for House seats.

The real story of the backlash to Donald Trump is about not just those candidates, but the millions of women who have become more involved in politics than they ever had before — organising, volunteering and, of course, voting. Talk to the reporters who have covered the newly energised progressive movement and they will tell you that it is being driven overwhelmingly by women.

And what are they about to see?

To sum up our present situation, a president who is on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by a dozen women, who emphatically supported accused abusers such as Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly and Roy Moore, and who promised that he would appoint only Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn Roe v Wade has appointed a man who is now accused of an attempted rape. Virtually the entire Republican Party is coming to that man's defence, a defence that promises to include relentless attacks on the accuser. Just as every other woman in her position goes through.

As Bloomberg News reports, the Trump team will try to sap Ford's credibility by raising questions about why she didn't tell anyone of the incident at the time it happened. But every woman in the world knows why that 15-year-old girl didn't tell anyone about it: because it would turn her trauma into an absolute nightmare. She would be the one blamed. She would be disbelieved, she would be ostracised, she would be called a liar and a slut, and a hundred other names. Every woman knows that because every woman has seen it happen.

Not that they needed a reminder of how this works, but they are sure going to get one now. Imagine if you're a woman watching Kavanaugh's defenders accept — and in some cases argue explicitly — that it is perfectly normal for a drunken teenage boy to sexually assault a teenage girl because that is just what men do. When Ed Rollins, co-chairman of a pro-Trump Public Accounts Committee, says, “If this is the new standard, no one will ever want or be able to serve in government or on the judiciary”, or when a lawyer close to the White House says, “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried”, that is precisely the message being communicated.

Not all of them are saying that; many Republicans are worried about how this controversy will make them look, and they are trying to step carefully. But if they are going to insist that Kavanaugh be confirmed, as they will, that means they are saying one of three things:

• They can say Ford is a liar who concocted this story for political effect, falsified therapist's notes from 2012 to corroborate her story, pretended to be unwilling to go public until journalists discovered her identity, and has volunteered to withstand the tsunami of hate and death threats guaranteed to come her way on the chance that she could torpedo Kavanaugh's nomination

• Or they can say that they believe her, but that Kavanaugh's actions as a 17-year-old should not be held against him — a dispensation they are notably unwilling to grant to, say, black teenagers shot by police

• Or finally, they can say that because it is impossible to prove what happened, Kavanaugh must be given the benefit of the doubt and confirmed

Because wouldn't it be a tragedy if he were innocent and still was not granted a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court? Women understand that argument, too: the man in these situations is always the one whose future is crucial to protect.

However this turns out — a new round of hearings to address Ford's charges is looking increasingly likely — women will learn little they do not already know. But they will watch, and get angrier, as well they should.

Republicans are already facing a dramatic gender gap in this year's elections. In the most recent Washington Post poll, Democrats led on the generic ballot question — whether you plan to vote for a Democrat or a Republican for Congress — among men by 45 to 44, essentially a tie. But among women, Democrats led by a stunning 25-point margin, 58 to 33. Trump's job approval shows something similar: in the most recent Gallup poll, his approval among men was 47 per cent. Among women, it was only 35 per cent.

When this is all over, Kavanaugh may still be confirmed. But once women have the chance to make clear at the polls what they thought about it, Republicans may wonder whether it was worth it.

Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog

Sex assault claim: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (Photograph by Alex Brandon/AP)

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Published September 19, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated September 19, 2018 at 9:22 am)

Women watching Kavanaugh controversy very closely

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