What Women Know

*This post contains sensitive material pertaining to sexual violence. 

Today, the country watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court Nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times of Dr. Ford, “She was afraid. She was strong. She was human.” My heart is in my throat as I write this, and my muscles are burning. I am pulsing with anger, frustration, and heartbreak, but this heartbreak is a familiar one. I know this grief well because I am a woman.

I am also a former crisis worker. I have sat for hours with women, shaking, weeping, or unable to physically move from the trauma of sexual violence.  I have held friends and loved ones filled with too much pain to carry themselves. Today, my heart is breaking in places where it has already been broken before. It is being broken open again by the cold and edgy truth that women in this country grow up endangered in their churches, at high school pool parties, in bucolic and elite colleges, in the workplace, in their homes.

Women hold this knowledge their entire lives. It is an unholy truth, but true nonetheless. Wisdom and fear have grown our muscles. We grow up hearing stories about women whose pain and victimization were ignored, like Anita Hill. We learn what roofies are before the time we turn twelve. We’re told of how our aunts were followed home. We learn that sex slavery and prostitution exist. We live in cities where cabs advertise strip clubs under “Gentlemen’s Club” banners. Our freedom, our independence, our liberation are framed with loving caution. Our mothers and aunts and sisters and friends whisper in our ears: this is how you stay safe. This is what happened to me. Shh. Just hold my hand and stay vigilant. We’ll be fine. 

We are grown in the soil of misogyny and injustice. We are not equally represented in our government. We are not equally represented in board rooms. We are better educated, but not equally paid. We spend more money each month paying tampon taxes and for overpriced or low quality birth control. Men make decisions about our bodies, all the time, without our consent.

We are objectified within the male gaze and then silenced or punished when this objectification leads to violence being precipitated against us. And yes, I know this because I am a woman. I live with my eyes open. I notice how often men interrupt or censor women. I notice that our collective and individual pain become inside jokes amongst certain groups of men.

In college, I helped to found Middlebury College’s first peer support network for survivors of sexual violence. After great deliberation, we named the organization MiddSafe. One morning at breakfast, a white, male classmate (raised very close to where Kavanaugh grew up, I might add), confronted me between bites of cereal, “Don’t you think that ‘Midd-Safe’ is ridiculous and a little hyperbolic? We’re not in any real danger here.”

I responded to him, staring him dead in the eye, “It is not hyperbolic at all. There are more people than you could even imagine who do feel victimized and unsafe here, in this place. There are people who are assaulted with alarming frequency. Those individuals need access to trustworthy and confidential help 24/7. Period.”

This young man’s “question” was both sexist and naive, positioned neatly within his safe and privileged home: his white male body. People of color, women, and LGBTQ people know what it feels like to feel unsafe in seemingly “safe” situations and beautiful places. This young man had never felt unsafe in his life, in the way that women or minorities have for centuries and continue to regularly.

Privilege ushers in more power with time, unfortunately, and unchecked power can easily become distorted. Power does not like differing experience, for it disrupts things; heat boils water. As I watched the hearings today, I felt sick with rage.

All I could think as I watched the second half was: I know you, Kavanaugh. I know you, Lindsey Graham. I know you Chuck Grassley. I know your lines because I’ve heard them before, too many times to count. I’ve seen men – some younger, more attractive, or better educated – act in all the same roles in this hackneyed and cruel routine of straw men and red herrings that perpetuates cyclical violence toward women and other vulnerable populations. You interrupt women and tell them to be quiet, not make so much noise, not be so honest. You see women’s voices and bodies and experiences as inconvenient.

Before it is even said to strip the poignancy and punch of female suffering, yes, not all men. I am married to a man. I love my brother and my father dearly. I have close male friends. I admire male leaders, like President Obama. They are all good men, men I am proud to know or look up to. And yet, our culture objectifies, sexualizes, and infantilizes women. We can love incredible men for being full human beings and remarkable individuals, and we can still advocate for radical change. The men in my life advocate for this, too. They do not need jump through rhetorical hoops to avoid hard questions.

This broken system may very well protect the unfit, ignorant, and dishonest man, nominated for the highest court in the United States, who has been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Every woman who knows the extent and frequency of gender-based violence understands that systems function to protect men with privilege and power. Dr. Ford walked into the hearing this morning knowing this, too, I imagine. I am holding my breath tonight, waiting to either scream or exhale.

The saving grace of this day was watching a courageous and vulnerable woman stand up to tell the truth of what happened to her in a harsh and unforgiving place, truth that echoes the lived experiences of so many American women. She stood up, despite being terrified, and showed men who know nothing of such wisdom and grace and pain what integrity looks like.

Dr. Ford stood up and reminded us all that women are strong. We always have been, and no matter the outcome, we will soldier on together.

“I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.” – Maya Angelou