Professors discuss gendered politics of Senate hearings

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The faculty discussion focused on the #MeToo movement, and drew comparisons between Kavanaugh's hearing and that of Justice Clarence Thomas. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Thursday, Oct. 5, government and gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor Claire McKinney, government professor Christine Nemacheck, and gender, sexuality and women’s studies and English professor Jenny Putzi gathered in Tyler Hall to discuss Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated to the Supreme Court by U.S. President Donald Trump, stands accused of sexual assault by several women. Most notable among them is Christine Blasey Ford, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 27. In her testimony, Ford alleged that Kavanaugh and his classmate attempted to assault her during a high school pool party in the summer of 1982.

The idea to host a discussion began with McKinney and Putzi, who realized through their own conversations that students needed a space where they could think through the Kavanaugh hearings. Nemacheck offered to join after hearing of her colleagues’ plans for the discussion.

Each professor brought her own perspective to the issue. McKinney conducts research involving the #MeToo movement and issues of mass mobilization, direct action and sex and sexual coercion, especially where it concerns women. Nemacheck studies judicial politics and federal court nominations. Putzi’s academic expertise does not directly translate to the confirmation hearings, as she studies 19th-century poetry written by women, but her personal life experiences are relevant. She was sexually assaulted in high school, and like many survivors has been forced to confront her emotions regarding her own assault as a result of the hearings.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics and was led largely by inputs from students. Among them was the lingering question of whether or not Kavanaugh would be confirmed. As all three professors predicted, Kavanaugh was confirmed by a narrow margin the afternoon of Oct. 6.

“When we are talking about sexual assault, the demands for evidence are set such that they can never be met,” McKinney said.

Several of McKinney’s responses to the student questions dealt with Kavanaugh’s confirmation process as part of a larger trend of political polarization throughout the country. 

“When we are talking about sexual assault, the demands for evidence are set such that they can never be met,” McKinney said. “The framing of this has been either we should treat this like a job interview or like a criminal proceeding. Depending on what sources you read, you’re going to see one of those two frames. These frames are actually partisan. If you read the National Review, they’ll say, ‘It’s innocent until proven guilty.’ If you read something like The Atlantic, it’s, ‘This is a job interview’ — and that’s not a mistake.”

Nemacheck explained Kavanaugh’s rise to power as part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to control the courts in a way that no administration had done before.

“There was a deal made during the election that Trump’s coalition in particular — evangelicals and those who care a lot about socially conservative issues, and thus the courts — that Trump would keep them on board as long as he did right by them with the courts,” Nemacheck said. “There was cooperation among two interest groups, [The Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation], prior to Trump ever being elected to develop a shortlist of 26 candidates from which he promised to choose candidates for the Supreme Court. That has never happened before.” 

Putzi noted the performance of gender taking place within the hearings and the media. 

“Ford is commended for her performance of femininity, right?” Putzi said. “Her sadness, her quavering voice, her desire to help. He comes up, performs this aggressive white masculinity, and is rewarded with a Supreme Court seat.”

Though they spoke on different aspects of the confirmation hearings, all three professors mainly focused on what their understanding of the confirmation hearings means for the future. McKinney focused on understanding the hearings’ influence on the future of #MeToo. Nemacheck wondered how Kavanaugh’s presence on the Court would affect its legitimacy. Putzi questioned what message it would send to sexual assault survivors, allowing someone accused of sexual assault to sit on the highest court in the land.

Students shared similar views. Isabel Cooper ’21, who found out about the discussion through the pre-law listserv, was interested in the impact of the hearings on the Court.

“I’m really interested in judicial institutions and the lasting impact that stuff like this has on the Court,” Cooper said. “I’ve been reading news articles and listening to podcasts and all that stuff, and you know those are good sources and you can get good information, but I thought it was interesting to talk about this with professors who are more intellectually informed about what’s going on.”

While much of the discussion focused on the impact of the hearings, there seemed to be a consensus that as contemporary as the #MeToo movement appears, much of Kavanaugh’s hearings were influenced by the past. The conversation drew on the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment 27 years ago. McKinney called the Kavanaugh hearings “a return to a previous era.” 

“The analogies of Anita Hill are salient in a lot of ways, not just because we’re talking about accusations of sexual coercion of a Supreme Court nominee that are late breaking and required new hearings, … but also because this feels like a return to the idea that we can’t fully trust women whenever they talk about their experiences,” McKinney said.