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Bigger than Brett: Why Kavanaugh is so personal for women

illustration of woman screaming
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

There's a reason Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation saga has exposed so much raw anger and deep sadness among women: It has struck many of them as a reminder that much of the country still doesn't take their darkest, most personal experiences seriously.

The big picture: For many, this news cycle has felt like an excavation of the wounds of women. While the #MeToo movement was focused on sexual harassment at the workplace, the reaction to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony — separate even from the politics of the confirmation battle — took many women back to their girlhoods, to high school and college, to now-distant worlds with different moral codes and long-buried pain that is scarier to face.

Nearly every woman has experienced, or has friends or family who have experienced, an unwanted sexual encounter. The resulting confusion, shame and distrust were etched into their memories and became defining moments in formative years.

That's why Ford's testimony has touched off something bigger than Kavanaugh — women are revisiting these experiences, sharing them on Facebook and group texts, even calling into C-SPAN.

  • But not all women side with Ford: Some believe the judge has been treated unfairly, and worry about what the new #MeToo climate means for their husbands and sons.

Whether you believe Kavanaugh or Ford, the emotions will resonate long after this debate, because it's not just about him anymore.

This saga has spurred complex, and sometimes conflicting, reactions:

  • Relief in not being alone — but horror in how many women had similar experiences.
  • Optimism that women are being heard — but rage that so many people assume they're lying because they didn't speak up sooner.
  • Hope for a national conversation — but dread that sexual assault has become a partisan issue that divides with suspicion rather than uniting with empathy.

I asked women at Axios, both in and out of the newsroom, why the confirmation battle feels like such a pivotal moment. Here’s a sampling of the nearly two dozen responses I received, edited for clarity and anonymized to protect individuals’ privacy.

Resonating: Many told me they were rattled by Ford’s testimony because it took them back to that party, or reminded them of that guy. They see their own stories in hers.

  • "The worst part was watching someone describe an encounter similar to something I've experienced and similar to what almost all of my friends have experienced, and then watching dozens of people I love and trust not care."
  • A familiar double standard: Women are doubted, while men are given the benefit of the doubt.
  • The lasting impact: "Women are indelibly changed by attacks that men don’t deem significant enough to remember, let alone apologize for."

Optimistic: Some see hope that the dialogue is happening, however painful.

  • Many had dismissed earlier experiences out of fear of being called overly sensitive, silly, or liars. "It’s not just other people saying 'I believe you,' but giving us permission to say that to our younger selves."
  • Confronting shame: "Knowing other women — intelligent, smart, driven women that you never think something like this could have happened to — sharing their stories makes others realize that no, you weren’t giving mixed signals, and no you weren’t doing anything to provoke such a disgusting act from a man. That to me is the power here, recognizing that it isn’t the woman’s fault."

Deflated: Others felt a sense of hopelessness in seeing how far we as a country still have to go in coming to terms with the complexity and frequency of sexual assault.

  • "If I were the person in that position after watching the way Dr. Ford was treated, I would never come forward to report. I wouldn’t compromise my own livelihood and normalcy … Maybe through this process, we have actually taken steps backward."
  • "A woman stood before the nation and confronted her deepest, darkest memories and trauma — and the country stared back and said, 'Even if this happened to you, we don’t care.'"
  • "This moment shows just how far women have to go ... I feel little hope that that will change in my lifetime."

Gone too far: Some fear the darker side of the #MeToo movement.

  • Politicizing assault: A few are concerned that sexual assault could become a political weapon — and perhaps already has. Some think Kavanaugh was presumed guilty and persecuted by the press over an uncorroborated account.
  • How much leeway and forgiveness should men be given for teenage behavior? Should adolescent behavior automatically disqualify from public service someone who seems to have grown up to be an admirable judge, husband and father? And where's the line between a "slip-up" and something that really is disqualifying?
  • "Young women and men both make mistakes, and taking responsibility for their actions has to cut both ways. We shouldn’t encourage a cultural norm of taking a woman at her word, but not taking a man at his."

The future: The pain will linger.

  • Turmoil is in store for the next generation. "For little girls, there is a linear path of messaging: be strong, be empowered, have a voice. For little boys, there's a new, much more nuanced playbook required, which is more about emotional awareness and empathy."
  • Redemption: The #MeToo movement will eventually need to make space for forgiveness and second chances, "But emotions still feel too raw to see that happening in the immediate future."

The bottom line: The turmoil over Kavanaugh may lead us to a better place in the long run. But in the short run, it's going to feel like the country is coming apart.