Illustration by Michelle Thompson for Broadly.

When Believing Women Isn't Enough to Help Them

"Believe women" became the #MeToo movement's rallying cry, but some say simply believing women may not be enough to accomplish the transformative change feminists imagine.

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Oct 9 2018, 8:46pm

Illustration by Michelle Thompson for Broadly.

Plenty of people believed Christine Blasey Ford when she said Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. Some of them voted to confirm Kavanaugh on Saturday.

When West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, announced he would be voting to confirm Kavanaugh, he first stated that he found Ford's testimony to be credible.

"I believe Dr. Ford," Manchin said. "Something happened to Dr. Ford. I don't believe that the facts show it was Brett Kavanaugh."

The notion that Ford and Kavanaugh—though testifying to opposing versions of events—could both be telling the truth would seem to require extreme mental gymnastics on Manchin's part, yet many others rose to the occasion along with him.

Ahead of last month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which heard Ford share her account of being attacked by Kavanaugh, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said that while he didn't believe Ford was "part of some kind of vast conspiracy theory" to smear Kavanaugh, he also felt certain that Kavanaugh wasn't "some kind of serial sexual predator" either.

And finally, in a 44-minute speech on the Senate floor on Friday that guaranteed Kavanaugh the votes he needed to be confirmed, Maine Senator Susan Collins suggested she too found it possible to believe both Ford and Kavanaugh at the same time.

In one sense, these senators were feeding a burgeoning conspiracy among conservatives, some of whom believed Ford's allegations against Kavanaugh suggested a literal case of missing persons or mistaken identity: Someone assaulted Ford, they could agree—it just wasn't Kavanaugh. But Republicans' ability to hold these two mutually exclusive ideas in their heads at once—that both Ford's and Kavanaugh's stories were true—with no apparent discomfort, some critics say speaks to a larger problem for our cultural reckoning with sexual misconduct.

The first year of the #MeToo movement, which derives from Tarana Burke's 2006 "Me Too" campaign and took off in 2017 with the New York Times' first Harvey Weinstein exposé, made "believe women" its rallying cry, as a landslide of women, and some men, spoke out about their experiences with sexual abuse, many for the first time. With Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court marking its first anniversary, however, feminists and activists wonder about the limits of believing women, and what those limits might foretell for the next chapter of #MeToo. After all, at least three of the people who voted yes on Kavanaugh—the three who tipped the scales in the final 50-48 vote in his favor—said they believed Ford.

Believing Ford wasn't enough to keep her alleged assailant from earning a spot on the Supreme Court.

"Even if you're lucky enough to be believed, even if you receive support, even if you have the confidence and ability to report your assault, 'believe survivors' has to be reflected on a policy and structural level in order for us to achieve the kind of reform #MeToo is aiming for," Jess Davidson, the executive director of End Rape on Campus, tells Broadly. "Believing women is just the first step."

Davidson says much of her work as an advocate for campus sexual assault survivors involves running into where belief in survivors' stories ends and the thorny systems that often favor their alleged assailants begin.

"Believing women is just the first step."

Recently, Davidson was working on a Title IX case at the University of Alabama, where a student had reported sexual assault allegations to the authorities. Many people believed her story was true, Davidson emphasized, and encouraged her to bring it to the proper channels. But these support systems could only take her so far: According to Alabama state law, sexual assault is only defined as such if alleged victims can prove they "earnestly" tried to fight off their attacker.

"We're seeing how believing survivors can be extremely powerful on an interpersonal level," Davidson says of the #MeToo movement, "but extremely hurtful to people like Ford who are operating within these systems that haven't yet enshrined believing survivors into their policies."

Since Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, where she discusses the "problem that has no name," and Audre Lorde's oft-quoted counsel that "your silence will not protect you," feminist resistance has centered on silence as one of patriarchy's most oppressive mandates.

Feminists found a foothold in the rhetoric of ending women's silence in the mid-aughts, when awareness surrounding campus sexual assault reached a fever pitch. Contemporary feminists like Rebecca Solnit coalesced around "break the silence" and similar turns of phrase as their operating maxims, the underlying idea being that survivors would speak out about their experiences, both as a means by which to shed the fetters of shame, and to draw attention to the widespread nature of abuse.

The rhetorical progression from "break the silence" to "believe women" is a subtle but important one: Whereas "break the silence" put the onus on survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories—however painful or retraumatizing that may be—"believe women" attempts to shift responsibility onto those who hear and bear witness to them.

This modulation, some say, was a natural side effect of the #MeToo movement, which nearly allowed us to take for granted that women would speak out. In the first few weeks and months after the multiple bombshell reports exposing Weinstein, a new allegation against a new Hollywood titan or media mogul emerged almost every day, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were flooded with posts from friends and family writing simply, "#MeToo" or detailing longer narratives of the abuses they'd suffered. That so many women felt someone might listen to and care about their trauma—and see that these traumas weren't purely individual—is precisely the movement's strength.

"If you think back, Me Too, when Tarana Burke first put it out there in 2006, started from a place where women were so fearful and the system was so broken that people were suffering in silence," said Tina Tchen, the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama and current head of the Time's Up legal defense fund, which provides victims of sexual misconduct with the funds to litigate their accusations. (Full disclosure: Tina Tchen is on VICE's Diversity & Inclusion board.)

"They didn’t think there was a mechanism to speak out or that you would be protected in speaking out," she continued. "What we're seeing now is some measure of progress."

With the #MeToo movement, it also seemed increasingly that there was a greater chance of being believed if one were brave enough to speak out. After women came forward with allegations against powerful men like Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Louis CK, those men lost jobs, lost cachet, and disappeared from the public eye.

"Obviously, 'break the silence' and 'believe women' are sequential," Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine (as well as another member of Vice's Diversity & Inclusion board) said. "You can't be believed until you speak, and the more women who break the silence, the more we are believed."

This progress seemed to track well with the cultural response to Ford's allegations against Kavanaugh, which triggered mass protests against Kavanaugh and in solidarity with Ford. Women who wore buttons that said "I believe Christine Blasey Ford" were arrested by the hundreds and cried out from the Senate gallery as senators cast their final votes to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Those who can remember Anita Hill's 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings said Ford seemed to receive a much larger outpouring of support than Hill, a testament in part to the effects of the #MeToo movement for which Hill herself helped lay the groundwork.

"Ford came to the hearing room buoyed by millions of women and men across the country," Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, the liberal group that led opposition to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination, told Broadly last month. "In essence, 27 years ago, it was Anita Hill facing those Democrats and Republicans on her own."

Tangible progress has always been an exercise in steps forward and steps back, especially for people like Tchen, a lawyer and former federal government official, who has borne witness to many a historic gain and defeat.

"It's a little like wack-a-mole," Tchen said. "One thing pops up and you try to enshrine a law—but there's always something else that pops up afterward."

One of the greatest victories in law over recent decades for sexual assault victims, Tchen said, was 1994's Violence Against Women Act—set to expire in December—which established federal "rape shield laws" that made it illegal for attorneys to use a plaintiff's sexual past to discredit their sexual assault claims. But Tchen and other attorneys who represent victims of sexual abuse are still fighting a much larger battle to change how sexual assault claims are litigated as they cases in courtrooms where judges and juries still consider firsthand witnesses and physical evidence the only way to corroborate an alleged assault.

"People were saying 'I believe Dr. Ford' but then saying she had no evidence against Kavanaugh," Tchen said. "She had credible and consistent testimony over years; that is evidence."

Davidson's game of wack-a-mole on the campus sexual assault front has arrived in the form of multiple Title IX policies handed down from Betsy DeVos' Department of Education, one after another, rolling back Obama-era guidances she says were built on the assumption that most complainants were telling the truth.

In Fall 2017, DeVos rescinded a letter from the Obama administration requiring universities to implement practices that made it easier for victims of sexual misconduct to argue their cases in campus judiciary hearings. And most recently, in August, DeVos began preparing new rules that would allow universities to be selective about which sexual misconduct cases they investigate and create a higher legal standard to determine whether schools mishandled students' complaints.

"The way I’ve been describing this year is like a car. The front wheels are culture. And we are slamming on the gas for culture. We’re hitting it hard. We’re seeing so much culture change. The back wheels are policy, and those wheels of the car are spinning; they’re stuck in mud."

"It's really weighing on me that the administration is setting up Title IX policies that hinge on the idea that survivors should not be believed," Davidson says.

"The way I’ve been describing this year is like a car," she says. "The front wheels are culture. And we are slamming on the gas for culture. We’re hitting it hard. We’re seeing so much culture change. The back wheels are policy, and those wheels of the car are spinning; they’re stuck in mud."

The call to "believe women" is born from the logical deduction that many people still don't, particularly those who most possess the power to turn their belief in women into material change.

President Donald Trump, who himself stands accused of sexual assault by 19 women, led the Republican Party in mocking Ford, doubting her testimony, and standing by Kavanaugh in the face of her allegations against him; "believe women" becomes necessary because Trump has no shortage of eager acolytes. But embedded in the phrase too is the potentially self-defeating suggestion that the transformation feminists imagine relies on people like Trump changing their minds.

"If we examine the history of struggle it is always the oppressed class that has to fight—the oppressor will not just respond to a pleasant asking," Natasha Lennard, a contributing writer at The Intercept who has written on #MeToo, said. "There has to be stakes; the pitch has to be made uncomfortable. It would be lovely if it could be asked and be responded to, but we’re talking about a violent hierarchy."

Lennard says opportunity is ripe for demanding that the mighty and powerful believe women in less than a month, when voters cast their ballots in the midterm elections. A Tuesday CNN poll showed that, despite Republicans' hope for a Kavanaugh confirmation bump, Democrats still lead by a 13-point margin, largely driven by the 63 percent of likely women voters who said they'll vote for Democratic congressional nominees in November.

"If we're just focusing the #MeToo movement on taking down powerful men in major industries one by one, it isn't scalable," Lennard says. "We need a diversity of tactics."

Yes, women are angry and fired up. They want to see powerful men held accountable for their actions, and they want to be the ones who hold them to it. But women are another thing too, which is tired, dejected, and defeated. Some have been finding it difficult not to see Kavanaugh's confirmation—which the media framed as a "test" of just how seismic our cultural reckoning with sexual assault has been—as the hard limit of the #MeToo movement.

But those who have now lived through multiple Supreme Court battles, waves of feminism, and watershed moments resembling this one, can see how a new chapter of the #MeToo movement will persist. It isn't with passive or "pleasant" asking, as Lennard argues—it's with the taking.

Tchen's vision for translating believing women into concrete progress has to do with representation in the workplace, in our government, and in any room where decisions are being made. For Tchen, debates surrounding how best to combat sexual misconduct are inextricable from those about diversity.

"Diversity and inclusion are all part of building cultures that are positive and treat everyone with dignity and respect," she said. "You can’t treat just one issue in isolation."

Steinem, like Lennard, imagines a multifaceted strategy moving forward, as has always been the nature of the feminist movement. Women will vote and run for office; they'll continue to speak up and out; they'll continue to donate money to organizations combatting sexual assault and providing support for survivors, and use their influence to shine a light on the plight of women with less power and privilege than they have. Women will take power, she says, and they won't wait around for anyone to give it.

"I have no worries that Kavanaugh's confirmation says the #MeToo movement has failed, just as I know that the ascent of a bragging sexual harasser to the White House doesn't mean we have failed," Steinem says. "We can and we will win—if we use our voice, vote, and economic power."