On Friday, October 28, when two young women -Ana Maria Archila, national committee member of the Working Families Party and executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, and activist Maria Gallagher — confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator as he was on his way to a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Maria Gallagher demanded that Senator Flake look at her.
“Don’t look away from me. Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html)
In her demand to be seen and to be taken seriously, she was speaking not only for women during this #MeToo moment who are telling their stories of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment, but I heard in her demand the echoes of women who have made that demand ringing down through the history of the United States.
When I wrote about the Anita Hill portion of the Clarence Thomas Hearings, I thought it was important to put that moment in historical context. Here is some of what I wrote:
“Once upon a time in America during the 17th century, during colonial times, women were “silent in church, subservient at home, and dependent on men,” just as they were in England, according to historian Nancy Woloch. There was a shortage of women and so shiploads of women were imported. Woloch tells us that: “Between 1620 and 1622 about 150 ‘pure and spotless’ women disembarked and were auctioned off for eighty pounds of tobacco a piece and more to future husbands.” In both North and South nearly all white women were married because families were necessary for settlement and for producing a labor force. Colonial mores established male authority and female submission. At the same time, the 17th century home was also the workplace, and women were important workers in that environment. In North Carolina and Virginia women hunted deer, turkey, wild cattle, and hogs. Yet, despite their work, women had no control over family resources. At the same time, if a husband or father died, a woman often assumed control of his business. Women therefore were shopkeepers, booksellers, tavern keepers, even blacksmiths, butchers, and gunsmiths. A single woman, a feme sole, was a legal individual. She could buy and sell property, sue, and be sued, enter into contracts, administer estates, and hold power of attorney.
Once upon a time in America, Puritans saw the family as a way to transmit religious values and they were expected to show personal virtues of submission, obedience, meekness, and humility. Outspoken women were called “meddlers.” Woloch writes: “Conveying a sense of incompetence and illegitimacy it was frequently used to describe the sort of intrusive aggressive female behavior to which seventeenth century men objected.” In the 1630s, Anne Hutchinson, wife of a landowner, merchant, and public official, mother of at least 14, midwife, and theologian, challenged the sanctity of ministers who opposed her and was expelled from Massachusetts in 1637. She argued that it was better for believers to depend on God rather than to depend on intermediaries. Hutchinson moved to New York and was killed by Indians in 1643. Mary Dyer, a Hutchinson follower, was accused of “error” and called “censorious” and “troublesome.” Mary Oliver criticized ministers and magistrates and ended up in the stocks. Ann Eaton of New Haven, Connecticut disavowed infant baptism and was excommunicated in 1644 for lying and stubbornness. Ann Hopkins, Eaton’s daughter, was said to have been driven mad by reading, writing, and thinking of things that only men should think about. Ann Hibbens, wife of a prominent Boston merchant, was tried in 1641 for lying and slander, was excommunicated and denounced for usurping the authority of her husband. According to Woloch: “Female dissent or aggressiveness remained evils to be suppressed before they got out of hand” If a woman dared to challenge a man, she dared to challenge patriarchy itself. Courage to challenge was interpreted as indicative of mental and moral weakness:
“Women’s alleged defects – of wit, will and moral fiber – had duel ramifications in seventeenth century society. First, female interference in men’s affairs such as theology and government, was considered dangerous and subversive, as the Anne Hutchinson episode in Boston suggested. Second, due to their supposed moral weakness, women were seen as ready prey for seduction by friends and likely candidates for career in witchcraft, a low and malevolent form of assertiveness.”
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford did not display any mental or moral weakness. Instead, she demonstrated courage. It was the kind of courage that is not a reckless fearlessness, rather it is the courage that sees clearly the risks and moves forward none-the-less.
Look at me.
Maria Gallagher’s demand is still necessary as the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to ignore Dr. Ford and focus instead on process. Why did Senator Feinstein wait to tell anyone about Dr. Ford’s letter? Who leaked the letter to the press? Why did Dr. Ford not know that the committee was willing to take her testimony in California? They yelled about the process in an effort to look away from Dr. Ford.
The GOP senators ranted about how there was no corroborating evidence, not paying attention to facts such as her sharing the story of this attempted assault with her husband, her therapist, and her friends long before Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to ascend to the Supreme Court. They refused to see Dr. Ford in context because they refused to call her therapist or the man who administered a polygraph test to her.
Look at me.
And worse, they tried to make her a victim yet again, this time not of a drunken teenage Brett Kavanaugh, but they wanted to make her a victim of Democratic operatives. The idea that Dr. Ford was a pawn in the Supreme Court confirmation game insults her intelligence and her integrity, and it evades the reality of her trauma.
Look at me is the demand of every woman who has suffered sexual abuse. It is the demand of our historical female ancestors.
See: Nancy Woloch, “Women and the American Experience” 2nd edition.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”