The Power of Speaking Up
There is an iconic photograph of Christine Blasey Ford taken on the day she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2018.12 Snapped at the moment of her swearing-in, the much-circulated image shows Blasey Ford with her palm raised, head tilted up, eyes closed, shoulders squared. She is somehow bathed in light. Like many others, when I look at that photo I see someone who appears to be taking a deep breath, steeling herself before the expected onslaught, an emblem of grace and courage.
She was there to recount how Brett Kavanaugh had raped her nearly four decades earlier (a charge he has denied). I watched that testimony streaming online, as did so many of the women I knew, texting each other notes of rage and reassurance, filling each other’s phones with Are you okay? and I am here for you. We could see ourselves in Blasey Ford. We could relate when she opened her testimony by saying, “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” We were terrified for her.
Blasey Ford had already experienced death threats. Her email had been hacked, and she’d been impersonated online. She’d even had to relocate her family — and would eventually go on to move at least four times and be forced to hire private security.13 Watching her testify, it was hard not to think of her initial reservation about coming forward: “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” The question became even more heartbreaking when senators voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October that year. Blasey Ford had challenged a powerful man, in a powerful institution, and she had not, it seemed, shifted any of that power. Many people asked if she came forward for nothing, the silent “Yes” hanging after their question mark. But, then again, how does that saying go? Vast patriarchal institutions that support, and even elevate, sexual violence against women weren’t unbuilt in a day? In testifying, Blasey Ford showed us a different type of power, one that resonated with women in particular.
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“In her courage, many Americans saw the opposite of everything they think is wrong with Washington. Politicians spin, fudge the truth, grasp at power. Ford appeared guileless,” wrote Time journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards, adding that Blasey Ford spoke up even though she knew she was unlikely to gain from it. “That kind of courage is rare, especially in Washington today. And Ford showed how powerful it can be.”14
From one angle, her testimony confirmed the fortress-like hold men have on power. From another, her decision to speak up, and people’s reactions to it, proved that power can wear many faces — likely one reason it’s so difficult to define. It doesn’t always look like a person (usually a man) sitting at the top of a company or government, looking down. Power can also look like speaking your truth, forcing inconvenient questions into the mainstream, and inspiring countless others to do the same. Power doesn’t always have to win; it isn’t always a triumph over someone else. Sometimes it’s what happens when a person breaks the silence. It’s what happens when a person acknowledges to others, and to themselves, that their experiences matter. Sometimes, it’s just for you.
Media and researchers alike have gravitated toward evaluating #MeToo based on what people think about it, as if we need a consensus for rebellion. We ask if people agree with it. If people #BelieveHer. If people were surprised at the sheer magnitude of it. If he — any he — should be punished, and if it matters if the alleged assault happened so many years ago. (Incidentally, people were significantly more inclined to support Kavanaugh’s confirmation once they learned the alleged assault happened more than 35 years ago, as if there’s an expiry date on being a horrible human being.) These are all worthwhile questions, and it’s important for us to consider them. They help us gauge the likelihood of institutional change, as Roscigno rightly noted, which is necessary for a movement’s success. But I have to wonder if Burke struck closer to the real change-making potential of #MeToo when she spoke about its power to heal. Because these methods and measurements do little to help us evaluate the movement’s power outside of an institution and the dominant culture that influences it.
Blasey Ford made her first public statement since the testimony in December 2018 when she presented the Sports Illustrated Inspiration of the Year Award to Rachael Denhollander, the first woman who spoke up to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former U.S. gymnastics team doctor, of sexual abuse. Eventually more than 150 women and girls publicly accused him; their victim-impact statements took a full seven days to be read in court. One, from gold medallist Aly Raisman, spoke to what many have taken to calling an “army of survivors.” “We, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing,” Raisman said. “The tables have turned, Larry. We are here. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”15 And while it should be lost on nobody that it took 150 women to take down one powerful man, it should also not be lost on us that these women did come together, for the first time in their lives. In many ways, their speaking up was also about reclaiming their own power: power over their own narratives, power over their own voices, power over their own truths.
In her award presentation, Blasey Ford herself acknowledged the risk Denhollander took in speaking out, and also how her actions galvanized others. “The lasting lesson,” she added, “is that we all have the power to create real change and we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by the acts of others.”16 In another context, that statement would sound like a platitude. Except we know that the tide of #MeToo has washed over far more men than Nassar — despite the generally lukewarm attitude toward it (itself arguably a product of that change). In the year after media broke the Harvey Weinstein story, #MeToo brought down a total of 201 once-powerful men, according to a New York Times report.17 In contrast, the year before, only 30 high-profile people made the news for losing their jobs following public reports of sexual misconduct. More interestingly, though, in the 124 cases in which companies hired replacements to fill the big (ass)hole at the top, a total of 54 women were chosen. (Presumably still in turmoil, some companies had yet to hire anyone at all.)
That’s far from a guarantee of deeper power shifts. As we’ll see later, in Chapter 4, just as parity is not always synonymous with equality, having a woman CEO does not necessarily guarantee her, or any other woman in the company, power. But disrupting the default-male-CEO tradition is a start — evidence that, as the New York Times put it, the #MeToo movement is shaking the most visible power structures. “We’ve never seen something like this before,” Joan Williams, a professor who studies work, gender, and class at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, told the paper. “Women have always been seen as risky, because they might do something like have a baby. But men are now being seen as more risky hires.”
And yet it’s more than that. There’s a reason Burke — and others — calls focusing on the number of downed men a distraction. What about those of us who’ve experienced violence at the hands of strangers, casual acquaintances, or people we thought we loved or trusted? Threaded through all of this is one constant, and it isn’t bad bosses. It’s how #MeToo has given those who’ve experienced sexual violence a way to talk to each other, unfiltered and without any interference from the systems they are typically forced to navigate. Some have used that power to cut the head off the monster. Good for them. Others have used it to do something that is Burke’s goal for the movement, something that is perhaps far more radical: to begin healing. I cannot think of a more anti-patriarchal vision of power than thousands of women coming together to heal one of the deepest wounds that system can inflict.
12. Garber, Megan. “Christine Blasey Ford Didn’t Come Forward in Vain.” The Atlantic. October 6, 2018.
13. Arnold, Amanda. “Christine Blasey Ford Speaks Out About the Threats She’s Faced.” New York Magazine. November 26, 2018; Baker, Peter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Nicholas Fandos. “Christine Blasey Ford Wants FBI to Investigate Kavanaugh Before She Testifies.” New York Times. September 18, 2018.
14. Sweetland Edwards, Haley. “How Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony Changed America.” Time. October 4, 2018.
15. Levenson, Eric. “Larry Nassar sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for decades of sexual abuse.” CNN. January 24, 2018.
16. Sullivan, Kate. “Christine Blasey Ford makes first public statement since testimony: ‘We all have the power to create real change.’” CNN. December 13, 2018.
17. Carlsen, Audrey, Maya Salam, Claire Cain Miller, et al. “#MeToo brought down 201 powerful men. Nearly half of their replacements are women.” New York Times. October 29, 2018.
Excerpted from No More Nice Girls by Lauren McKeon. Copyright © 2020 Lauren McKeon. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. www.houseofanansi.com