From Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill to Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the machine of right-wing politics has gone into high gear to defend prominent men from women’s accusations of sexual violence and harassment. Since the 1987 defeat of Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork—a loss that galvanized the Right—conservatives have honed a playbook for fighting back against allegations that could derail confirmations.
But the response isn’t only about winning a single confirmation battle. It’s also about protecting male supremacy—including the male sexual entitlement inherent to rape culture—against those who seek to upend that system. That’s why, even after Thomas was confirmed in 1991, the Right continued to malign Professor Anita Hill, depicting her as a liar, sex-obsessed, incompetent, attention-seeking, and the willing instrument of a liberal conspiracy to destroy the conservative nominee. (As an African-American woman, many of these attacks took on racist tones as well.) Similar accusations have already been made against Ford in advance of her Senate testimony this Thursday, including speculation that “the attacks on Kavanaugh have the fingerprints of a Democratic hit job.”
Hill became an inspiration, encouraging women to tell their stories and run for office (media outlets referred to 1992 as “The Year of the Woman.”) She also became a potent symbol to male supremacists—of the threat they believed women and the feminist movement pose. As I wrote in an article for The Public Eye this summer, the consequences also included fueling the rise of the “men’s rights” movement (which claims that men are oppressed by feminism) and may have acted as trigger for an act of misogynist mass violence.
Conservative organizations also went to work on Thomas’s behalf, including the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America (CWA), Eagle Forum, Family Research Council, the Federalist Society, and Women for Judge Thomas (which would later become the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum). Today, the same organizations have lined up behind Kavanaugh. CWA, a Christian Right women’s organization claiming half-a-million members, began a “Women for Kavanaugh” bus tour in August. Following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her in high school, CWA and Independent Women’s Voices (the action offshoot of IWF) called on their subscribers to demand Kavanaugh’s immediate confirmation, without waiting for Ford’s or other potential victims’ testimony.1
While Kavanaugh complains of a “grotesque and obvious character assassination” derived from a “frenzy” to stop his confirmation, and CWA plans to hold a rally at Capitol Hill just before Ford’s scheduled testimony, two other women have come forward, alleging additional sexual violence through a media report and in a sworn affidavit.
The American Family Association (AFA)—a far-right, anti-LGBTQ Christian organization that boasts $34 million in total assets—paints the Kavanaugh hearings as representative of a “Clash Between #MeToo and #FalselyAccused.” In an echo of the rhetoric of men’s rights activists (MRAs), regular AFA guest blogger Dr. Michael Brown argues, “Tragically, just as thousands of rapes are not reported every year, and just as countless cases of sexual abuse are not ruled in favor of the female victim, there are countless cases of false accusations against men.” Brown approvingly quotes a National Review article in which Michelle Malkin claims there are “hundreds and hundreds” of wrongful rape convictions and declares, “Rape is a devastating crime. So is lying about it.”
This familiar false equivalence simultaneously inflates the problem of false accusations against men while downplaying the estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of unreported rapes and sexual assaults each year.
Since the 1990s—and resurging in the 2010s with the rise of campus anti-rape organizing and the #MeToo movement—reports of sexual violence have been dismissed on the grounds that large numbers of women lie about being raped. This claim, used by conservatives, MRAs, and equity feminists alike, is used to cast statistics showing epidemic levels of sexual assault and rape as baseless “hysteria.” However, similar to other types of crimes, false reports of sexual violence range from two to 10 percent—and those percentages do not primarily reflect a vengeful woman lying about a specific man. Rather, most cases reflect decisions by law enforcement that a report is not credible because a survivor provides a vague suspect description, delays reporting, or fails to meet uninformed police notions of how victims should behave.
Jennifer C. Braceras, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a secular women’s organization promoting a libertarian ideology that denies the existence of structural oppression of women (adherents variously call it “equity feminism”), suggested that Ford might be misremembering a drunken encounter. Alternately, she speculated, Ford might be “trying to sink a Supreme Court nominee whom she believes (rightly or wrongly) puts Roe v. Wade in jeopardy, and she will be hailed as a hero and a patriot, offered lucrative speaking engagements, and a named professorship at a prestigious university.” Braceras calls on Sen. Susan Collins—one of the few female Republican senators—to provide her male colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee with political cover by supporting Kavanaugh, warning that if she instead accepts Ford’s allegations, “she will have lent a veneer of legitimacy to the weaponization of #MeToo for political purposes.”
Top stories on the National Review website this week claim that the Kavanaugh hearings demonstrate that we are living in George Orwell’s 1984 (an article listed under the rubric “PC Culture”); that the “political circus” could destroy the #MeToo Movement; and attacking The New Yorker for publishing the second sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh from his college classmate, Deborah Ramirez. Charlotte Hays at IWF reiterated the 1984 reference, and reminds readers of the specter of the failed confirmation of Robert Bork.
Abandoning any pretense of respect for alleged victims, Paul Elam, founder of the men’s rights group A Voice for Men (AVFM, this year designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), refers repeatedly to “rape liar Christine Blasey Ford.” He attacks conservative politicians and commenters for considering her claims as “she persecutes and destroys an innocent man,” recalling Clarence Thomas as “the last guy they tried to keep out of the Supreme Court with trumped up accusations tossed in at the last minute by a woman of questionable motivation and even more questionable credibility.” Elam is a protégé of Warren Farrell, who deployed false equivalency in outrageous ways, for instance, writing in his 1993 book The Myth of Male Power that, “One woman’s accusation of sexual harassment can stop the government in its tracks (a la Anita Hill).”The rhetoric swirling around this case is escalating beyond the longstanding portrayal of women as liars and pawns of liberal political conspiracy. AFA’s email blast on Wednesday morning painted opposition to Kavanuagh as disrespect for “the rule of law” and announced that “it’s getting dangerous for [people who support Trump] and their families”—an echo of Trump’s claim in August that if the GOP loses the midterms there will be violence from the Left. Organizations on the Right sow fear and resentment to galvanize their supporters, not only for this confirmation battle but also going into the midterm elections and beyond.
1CWA Legislative Action Committee, email to author, September 20, 2018.