At the height of a recent outcry over licensed misogyny in a Scottish newspaper, a Twitter friend sent me a clip of Two Whoops And A Holler by honky tonk singer Jean Shepard. The song, recorded in 1953, calls out the double standards that exist between men and women. “How come a man can fight and cuss and smoke and drink and cheat” Shepard demands, “but if a woman does one little thing she isn’t worth a damn?”
She doesn’t actually use the word “damn”: it wouldn’t be ladylike. Instead it’s bleeped out. That’s the joke; and yet it’s also the point. If Shepard is to get away with dissing the male-dominated system in which she operates, she knows she must mute her contempt; present herself as a feisty little miss, as opposed to a harridan.
Last week’s Senate committee hearing into Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was a masterclass on those double standards. On who is allowed to express anger and who isn’t; on whose word is believed and whose doubted. It was proof that nothing much has changed since 1953; and certainly not since 1991, when Anita Hill was called “a bit slutty and a bit nutty” for having the temerity to complain about her sexual harassment at the hands of Judge Clarence Thomas.
Anger was the only reasonable response to the way Christine Blasey Ford was forced to publicly relive the trauma of the attempted rape she claims she endured at Kavanaugh’s hands at the age of 15. Other women raged on her behalf. As she recounted her memories of that night – the narrow stairs, the locked door, the laughter that reduced her to a sex toy – emotions kept in check for years spilled on to social media.
But Ford was the opposite of angry. She was co-operative, apologetic, eager to please. There can be scarcely a woman alive who didn’t recognise in Ford’s conciliatory manner a dim reflection of themselves. We are taught from birth to play “the good girl”; and we understand the social cost of choosing to reject that role. Nor did Ford cry, of course. Crying is a sign of hysteria. “Hysteria” is Greek for “uterus” and a well-known signifier of female instability.
In the committee room, all the rage came from the 11 angry (Republican) men; so many faces contorted at the very idea Kavanaugh’s rectitude should be challenged. “This is the most unethical sham since I was in politics,” Senator Lindsey Graham bellowed. And then there was Kavanaugh himself, alternating between tears and tantrums; performing a one-man show for the US’s chief tantrum-thrower in the White House. It’s acceptable for men to be angry, for theirs is a righteous anger. It’s a sign of strength and, apparently, of veracity. The louder they shout, the truer their words.
Or at least that’s how it seems. Though Kavanaugh at first presented himself as a “choir boy”, it quickly became apparent he was an epic drinker and a boor. His High School year book was full of sexual innuendos about “boofing” and “the devil’s triangle” and the slut-shaming of a woman called Renate. There was also a reference on his calendar to a night in July 1982 involving some of the boys Ford had cited as being present. But not much attention was paid to that. Instead the focus was on “inconsistencies” in Ford’s story. Like the fact she couldn’t remember where the house was.
Ford was easily the more credible witness, but Kavanaugh was the one who went to Georgetown Prep School; he was the one with the powerful allies. Kavanaugh was also the one who became hysterical, but he doesn’t possess a uterus, so let’s call it a display of raw emotion.
If the committee hearing really had been a job interview for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, he would have flunked it. He displayed none of the judgment or restraint you would want in someone who will have control over – among other things – women’s reproductive systems. Of the two witnesses, only Ford seemed to grasp the concept of civic responsibility. But this was never a job interview; it was a savage piece of theatre designed to consolidate male power.
On this side of the Atlantic, women watched with a horrified compulsion. There was something so American about the affair, with its country clubs; its brewskis and its protagonists with names like Chuck and Brett. But we are no strangers to male privilege. It was male privilege that brought us Brexit; male privilege, in the form of Rod Liddle and Jacob Rees-Mogg, that strutted its stuff on the BBC Question Time panel last week.
British politics is rank with the smell of testosterone just now. Whether it be the scrapping of Labour plans to appoint a female co-deputy leader or the new Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price striding purposefully through the streets in a bizarre video, machismo is back in fashion.
British women share their American sisters’ frustrations. They are livid about Weinstein and Kavanaugh and how the world seems to be slipping backwards. “I made eye contact with Mark [Judge – the other man said to have been present] and thought he might try to help me, but he did not,” Ford said in the most heart-breaking moment of her testimony. Women everywhere are fed up of making metaphorical eye contact with men they hope will support them, only to have them turn away.
Rage may be deeply unfeminine, but it was two angry women who delivered the only tiny triumph of the hearing. Senator Jeff Flake – the one Republican who might feasibly have voted against party lines and so tipped the balance – revealed he planned to support Kavanaugh’s nomination. On his way to the committee chambers, however, he was stopped by Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher. They told him of their own experiences of sexual assault. He shifted uneasily, eyes to the floor. “Look at me when I am talking to you,” Gallagher screamed.
Later, Flake said he was prepared to confirm the nomination in the committee, but that he would not do so again on the floor of the Senate unless a short FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations had been carried out. Fearful that, without the backing of Flake and two other senators, a majority would not be secured, Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump ordered the probe.
As the Kavanaugh hearing unfolded, political activist Angela Y Davis’s upending of The Serenity Prayer started doing the rounds again. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept,” she wrote. Brothers, believe me when I tell you: women are tired of being this angry. No-one wants to live in a state of perpetual outrage. It’s miserable and exhausting. But as we continue to inch closer to some sort of misogynist dystopia, our anger is all that is keeping us afloat.