Yesterday, Septemeber 27th, people across America were glued to livestreams of a historic moment. During the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimonies regarding Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh. The nominee has also been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women since Dr. Ford’s public accusation.
Dr. Ford endured four hours of interrogation by Democrats and a Republication-retained counsel. During that time, she answered all questions, using both her personal experience and her professional expertise as a psychology professor. No one who viewed her testimony and subsequent questioning could deny her level-headed responses and amicable willingness to accommodate. Many people on social media and many TV news outlets echoed that Dr. Ford proved to be a credible figure.
However, Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony immediately showed that he had a much different approach to discussing these allegations. From the very start of his opening statement, Kavanaugh was loudly belligerent in his tone and aggressive in his language. Calling the allegations a “smear campaign” and a “farce,” he vocally attributed the necessity for a hearing to Democrats who are out to get him—namely the Clintons. His opening statement was also notably longer than Dr. Ford’s and tended to veer off into angry tangents and enraged, tearful breakdowns. His outright fury and appearance of being overcome with emotion seemed off-kilter, especially to the many women viewing the hearing.
His behavior only escalated from there. During questions from Democratic members of the panel, Kavanaugh loudly interrupted senators, refused to answer them directly, went on unrelated angry rants if he did answer, and possessed an unprovoked rage.
Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh’s noticeably different tones and behaviors are nothing surprising.
From a very young age, boys and girls are conditioned differently regarding what is “socially acceptable behavior” and when they’re allowed to be angry.
While boys are taught that loudly aggressive verbal or behavioral actions are okay, girls are discouraged from ever expressing their rage. Even when their rage is just, they are conditioned to control it so as to not make anyone—especially men—feel bad.
Girls who are loud or opinionated are often saddled with labels like bossy, overbearing, or cold. Boys don’t face that same stigma. Instead, they are praised for their outspoken behavior. Boys who exhibit the same behavior as “bossy” girls are seen as future leaders, praised for their assertiveness.
In that same vein, if Dr. Ford had shown anger during her testimony as Kavanaugh did, the public reaction toward her would have been much different. Not only would she seem less credible—she would also not be seen as a sympathetic person. When “bossy” little girls grow up to be outspoken women, they are labeled as bitches, or worse.
When women show visible emotion or any sign of tenderness, they are accused of being weak. After all, how often have people blamed women’s “erratic” emotions as the reason why they can’t be political leaders? But not showing excessive emotion is also something counted against women. In a 2016 Humans of New York post, Hillary Clinton said, “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk.”
And, of course, we have to talk about Anita Hill, whose sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (then a nominee) we are reminded of during the Kavanaugh hearings. After Anita Hill’s testimony nearly 30 years ago, the young attorney was criticized for her strong and confident demeanor as she faced an intimidating legislative body. Women—especially Black women—are expected to be strong in order to be seen as a professional or to be taken seriously. However, society dictates that sometimes—and from some people—that strength is inappropriate.
Ultimately, society holds women and our right to speak up to much different standards than it does men. If Dr. Ford had shown as much scorn, or had raised her voice as disrespectfully as Kavanaugh, she would have faced rebuke. She would have disqualified herself from any public support. She would have been labeled as a liar, a scorned woman, hysterical, a bitch.
It remains to be seen if Kavanaugh’s unhinged aggression will hurt him, but history tells us that most of society will see his anger and rage as a non-issue. But, hopefully, by calling out this bias, we are at the start of changing the gendered conditioning we accept as the norm.
And we can be sure of one thing: Those who demand justice against men who sexually assault, harass, and and abuse others—women like the heroic Dr.Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill—are already changing the world.