Good girls, tough women, and the Kavanaugh hearings
Like thousands of television viewers, I sobbed when Christine Blasey Ford described Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault against her during their teenage years. And when she spoke of her strongest memory of that event, the memory of Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing “at my expense,” while she lay pinned down, I cried out loud. I cried for the pain she had suffered, and I cried for the humiliation of being laughed at in that way in a moment of intense vulnerability.
As I listened to her memories, some of my own came back, not — I’m deeply grateful to say — anything near the horrors of sexual assault, but memories of the humiliation of male laughter at my expense. Many years ago, when I was a young editor at a prestigious encyclopedia, I was promoted to head a department after its top editor left. He had held the title of senior editor. Because no woman had ever filled that position, I was named acting senior editor. That meant having the same responsibilities as he but at half his salary. Not prone to questioning authority in those days, I accepted the position and worked as hard as I could. After more than a year, I approached the managing editor to ask gingerly whether I might now have the senior editor title and the full pay that went with it. He burst out laughing — the mocking laugh of a man in power — and said: “We spoke about that at a board meeting, but you look so cute when you’re mad, we decided to keep you waiting.” I didn’t get the title for another six months. The pay never equaled that of the former male editor’s.
Another memory is of surgery I underwent some years later. Proud of his handiwork, the surgeon did not want to hear anything negative. When I complained of being in great pain, he laughed, “Well, if you were a football player, you wouldn’t be feeling any pain, but as a woman that’s what you’re focusing on.” Taken aback by his reaction, I simply accepted the pain medication he gave me, and tried hard not to complain again.
Those events happened long ago, before the women’s movement seemed to have changed the world for women and men. Yet there was Ford recounting an agonizing experience at the hands of a man who then laughed at her trauma. My tears flowed for her story and they flowed for her manner of telling it. She spoke in a high voice that trembled at times, but never rose in anger. She smiled occasionally, joked about the caffeine she needed, and asked politely about taking a break. She was the good girl women have historically been raised to be; the good girl I had been so many years earlier with a snide boss and egocentric physician. Meanwhile, Judge Kavanaugh shouted, wept openly, and hurled questions back at his questioners. No doubt he suffered, as she did, his life ripped open before the world. But he didn’t hesitate to fight back fiercely.
I have thought about Jewish tradition in all this. For centuries, Jewish women were expected to follow the Talmudic dictum — based on a verse in the book of Psalms (45:14) — that the glory of the king’s daughter lies “within the palace,” meaning that women must remain modestly in the background, not calling attention to themselves. Good girls. But all along there was another text, a different biblical image of women. This one was personified by the prophet Deborah, who led her people in battle against the Canaanites and then sang triumphantly of their victory. As women’s roles have changed in Jewish life, the Deborah image has been outpacing that of the king’s daughter in her palace. Women in all the denominations have stepped out and assumed key leadership positions. Yet there are still plenty of areas where Jewish women have a way to go in order to push past the old social images — the king’s daughter image — and achieve full equality.
The same holds true for society at large. Ford showed great courage in coming forward; yet to a great extent, the public’s acceptance of her came from her modest demeanor, her sweetness and vulnerability, traits that have characterized women through the ages. There was, however, something else happening during those hearings that points to the future: two women in an elevator shouting at Sen. Jeff Flake just after he announced he would vote in the Judiciary Committee to confirm Kavanaugh and just before he requested the vote in the full Senate be delayed for an FBI probe; masses of women loudly protesting outside the Capitol; women everywhere expressing rage at sexual assaults they had long repressed.
Women of all creeds can no longer keep their pain or anger locked behind palace gates. Like Brett Kavanaugh and many other men, they have begun to shout, weep openly, and fight back fiercely. Bravo!
Francine Klagsbrun’s biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards.