'The fight is not done': Professors, students discuss #MeToo movement, Kavanaugh

It's a story that has played out on national television, on newsprint and Twitter feeds dozens of times since the #MeToo movement broke through in late 2017. A woman—in many cases, multiple—accuses a widely known man of sexual misconduct. What happens after that has varied. 

Now, a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court has been accused of sexual misconduct. He denies it. 

The nominee's and his accuser's sides on the alleged teenage incident were bared for the country to see in an emotional and dramatic Senate hearing. The FBI has investigated and announced they found no information to corroborate the account. Other accusers have come forward. 

About one year after the #MeToo movement began, the Senate is set to vote on the nominee's confirmation.

What does Brett Kavanaugh and the alleged misconduct mean for #MeToo? What does #MeToo mean for him?

The movement and the moment

Tarana Burke—a survivor of sexual assault—coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 in an effort to help other survivors. In late 2017, however, the movement was ignited when Ashley Judd, accompanied by other actresses and female employees, publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of extensive sexual harassment across decades. 

Shortly after, allegations against business mogul Roy Price, actor Kevin Spacey and U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), among others, came to light. Thousands of survivors of sexual assault and harassment began sharing their stories under the banner of #MeToo. 

During the Sept. 27 hearing, Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her allegations attempted rape by Kavanaugh when he attended Georgetown Preparatory School.

“I was pushed onto the bed and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes,” Ford said in her statements to the Committee. “I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming.”

Ford's testimony was followed by Kavanaugh’s

“I categorically and unequivocally deny the allegation against me by Dr. Ford,” Kavanaugh said in his opening testimony. “I have never sexually assaulted Dr. Ford or anyone.”

'A judge represents the law'

Ralf Michaels, Arthur Larson professor of law, called out Kavanaugh for not directly answering some questions during the hearing.

"A judge represents the law, and requires parties in the court to follow the procedure that the court provides," Michaels said. "I was troubled by the fact that a judge who applies for a job in the highest court in the country feels that same kind of conduct shouldn't be required from him."

Ford was joined by Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick in issuing allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, Sept. 23 and Sept. 26 respectively. 

Ramirez alleged that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a college party and Swetnick alleged in a sworn declaration that she had “observed Brett Kavanaugh drink excessively at many of these [house] parties and engage in abusive and physically aggressive behavior toward girls.” She also reported that she “became aware of efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to ‘spike’ the ‘punch’ at house parties [she] attended with drugs and/or grain alcohol.” 

Following the hearing, the Committee voted to send Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Senate floor, but Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called for a hold in order for the FBI to conduct a one-week investigation into claims made against Kavanaugh. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell affirmed in a Senate floor speech Oct. 1 that Kavanaugh would be voted on by the end of this week, stating that “the time for endless delay and obstruction has come to a close.” 

The issue has also made waves on campus.

Wednesday, a letter entitled "the Senate Should Not Confirm Kavanaugh" set to be presented to the Senate soon was released, signed by more than 2,400 law professors as of Thursday night. Among them were 24 professors at Duke and Duke Law, including Michaels. 

Thursday afternoon, dozens of students walked out of classes at the Sanford School of Public Policy as part of the "Cancel Kavanaugh" protests.

'Would Ford have come forward and actually done the public hearing without Me Too?'

Michaels said it's less important to him what Kavanaugh did 36 years ago than his current behavior.

"The question is, how is he dealing with this today?" Michaels questioned.

Michaels said that Kavanaugh could have instead said "I drank a lot in high school and I don't remember what I did. I cannot imagine that I ever did something like that...if I did anything like that I am terribly sorry."

That would symbolize the collective reckoning that society needs to deal with the multiple guilts in its past, the professor said.

"This is about the refusal to acknowledge something today—that is current and active and disqualifies him for office and makes him a really bad symbol for society and for the law," Michaels added. 

In an interview with Jacobin Magazine, Jedediah Purdy, Robinson O. Everett professor of law, said the Sept. 27 hearing as being politicized and biased.

"Who are these gerontocrats, these dinosaurs from Iowa who are asking Christine Blasey Ford all these questions and then teeing up questions for Kavanaugh about his belief in God?" Purdy said. "Why is the question of whether sexual assault is really not okay still a live question?"

Some students expressed that the Sept. 27 hearing reflects progress in creating an environment conducive to speaking up.

"One thing I was hypothesizing was, 'Would Ford have come forward and actually done the public hearing without Me Too?,'" said junior Ema Klugman, co-chair of Duke Students Against Gender Violence (DSAGV). "I think she wouldn't have."

Junior Melissa Baldino said she was apprehensive of what it would mean if Kavanaugh is voted into the Court.

“Somehow, it’s becoming more and more hard to be someone who can come out and say they were sexually assaulted,” Baldino said.

Ford was reportedly forced to move from her home due to threats.

At the Mississippi rally, Trump commented on how the allegations have impacted Kavanaugh and his family. 

“A man’s life is in tatters,” Trump said.

Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 2, Trump commented that it is a “scary time for young men in America” because “you can be [found] guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”

Students expressed concern about the current status—and possible outcome—of Kavanaugh’s candidacy in light of the accusations against him.

Sophomore David Conlin mentioned that despite having been recently politically disengaged because “it’s really tiring,” a vote favoring Kavanaugh would challenge his ability to pull away. 

“That’s something I think I would have an emotional response to,” Conlin said. “I don’t know if fear is the right word, but I definitely think it would be deeply upsetting to see him get confirmed, and I think there are not that many things that have felt like that in a while.” 

Conlin further noted the emotional strain and labor that survivors of sexual assault, including Ford, may face. 

“What is the movement about?” he said. “It’s about bringing these cases to light and bringing people to justice. Exposing these people is the first task but all of this is really draining [for victims].”

In a post on Facebook, Michaels wrote that Kavanaugh's appointment would not signal "that we will appoint a proven sexual assaulter, because he is not." Instead, it would imply that the impact of the #MeToo movement only exists in the abstract. 

"The message is almost worse," he wrote. "It is the message that sexual assault accusations are irrelevant insofar as they concern concrete men." 

Baldino emphasized the detriment to victims’ perception of their own power and voice if Kavanaugh were to be appointed.

“It seems like no matter what a victim does, it’s not gonna be the right thing,” Baldino said. “It’s never going to be enough for someone in power to actually give those victims a voice and give them the justice they deserve.” 

Rev. Joshua Lazard, C. Eric Lincoln minister for student engagement and interim director of religious life, agreed on the discouraging reflection that the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh has on social climate.

“I think it reflects that…despite activism and calls for change, they have fallen on deaf ears of our elected officials," Lazard said. "They seem completely deaf to cries of anguish and pain from vast sections of American society."

On the other hand, some students expressed concern surrounding the accountability of information being accumulated in the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing and the FBI investigation.

“I think it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction nowadays with so many allegations of men in power or positions of power about sexual assault,” first-year Jake Swartz said. “In no way am I saying that those allegations can’t be possible. All victims deserve justice, but it’s very difficult to find that justice without sufficient evidence all the time.” 

Every concern from both sides of the aisle plays a role in the FBI’s ongoing investigation, and the final Senate vote, set for the end of this week, will be a significant snapshot of the genuine state of the Me Too movement and its power.

“It would be a real kick in the shins for the whole movement,” Baldino said. “It’s setting a precedent that what they’re doing isn’t wrong.” 

A look back—and forward

Clarence Thomas currently serves as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He is also a figure who, in the midst of his confirmation hearings and appointment to the Supreme Court, was faced with allegations of sexual misconduct in his case by professor Anita Hill. 

Hill had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and then the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After his confirmation hearings concluded, an FBI interview with Hill was leaked, and as a result the hearings reopened and Hill was called to testify.

In her testimony, Hill alleged Thomas asked her out on multiple occasions despite her previously saying no, used work situations to discuss sex, described his own sexual prowess to her and commented on what she was wearing as to whether it made her more or less sexually attractive. 

“I categorically denied all of the allegations and denied that I ever attempted to date Anita Hill, when first interviewed by the FBI. I strongly reaffirm that denial,” Thomas said in his statement at the hearing Oct. 11, 1991. 

In a 52-48 full Senate vote falling in Thomas's favor, he was confirmed Oct. 15, 1991. 

The letter Duke professors signed against Kavanaugh is not the first time Duke community members have turned to a letter against a Supreme Court nominee. A then-member of Duke faculty opposed Thomas’s appointment, even before Hill’s allegations came to light. Today, Franklin’s presence on campus is felt in the John Hope Franklin Institute that bears his namesake. 

In a letter dated Sept. 16, 1991 to Biden, John Hope Franklin, James B. Duke professor of history emeritus and professor of legal history, called Thomas’s fitness for the position into question, stating that in his positions within the Department of Education and the EEOC, “[Thomas’s] conduct raised serious doubts about his fitness even for those positions, to say nothing of his fitness for a place on the United States Supreme Court.” 

Now, Kavanaugh's nomination is moving towards a vote. If proceedings roll forward as McConnell has outlined, a Senate vote to fill the void left by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy will take place within days.

“I think [the vote] would enrich and enliven activists and ideologues who support the #MeToo movement," Lazard said. "The fight is not done for the equality of women."


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