Angry and Credible: Women Can’t Be Both
What the stark differences between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanagh’s testimonies tell us about sexism.
By Shea Swenson
The last thing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford did before delivering her opening statement was lean forward.
“Is that good?” She asked.
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Charles Grassley had asked Ford to move the microphone closer to her so he could hear her voice, which was quiet and controlled - but the microphone was unmovable.
“I’ll just lean forward,” Ford said, immediately bending and accommodating herself to the process of the hearing.
Ford spent the majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing answering questions directly, a lot of the time in simple, one-worded answers. Combined, Ford delivered the answers "yes," “correct,” “ok,” and “thank you,” nearly 100 times.
When her answers were longer and more detailed, they were transparent and cooperative, containing sentiments like, “I’m just happy to describe them if you wanted me to and I’m happy to not. It’s just whatever you want.”
When asked about taking a break Ford asked, “Does that work for you? Does that work for you, as well?”
Even though Ford admitted to being terrified, she remained calm and accommodating. She had to.
Ford was seemingly doing everything she could to be direct, to suppress her emotions and keep them out of her answers. As a woman, anger was not an option if she wanted to remain credible.
Displays of anger from women are often considered unnatural or unfeminine. It is considered more “natural” for a woman to cry than it is for her to express the same emotion through fury.
Interrupting, blaming, or yelling from Ford would have been considered unacceptable. In our patriarchal society, an angry woman cannot also be a rational one.
“Women in Western history have been aligned with emotions and therefore deemed irrational, even hysterical kinds of creatures,” said Dr. Michelle J. Garvey, a Teaching Specialist in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Women’s emotions are so often used as weapons against us, to revoke our credibility, to question our rationality, and ultimately, to dismiss our messages.
So, Ford’s testimony was direct. It was void of emotion wherever possible, regardless of the terror she was feeling. Instead of drawing on her emotions, she calmly stated what she did and did not remember and used her scientific background to explain what she could.
Kavanaugh’s behavior during the hearings was starkly the opposite.
He started his opening statement angrily and by the time he finished, he was fuming.
Kavanaugh’s emotions were at the forefront of his testimony. They were present in many of his responses. When answering questions, he was dismissive and evasive, avoiding many Democratic senators in particular. Simple, direct answers from Kavanaugh were far less frequent. He was combative, sometimes even turning questions back on the senators themselves.
When asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., if he had ever drunk so much that he didn’t remember the night before, his response was, “It’s — you’re asking about, you know, blackout. I don’t know. Have you?”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, Kavanaugh claimed it was his emotions that were responsible for the defensive and aggressive way he delivered his testimony and answered questions. He said he was frustrated with the allegations and distressed about the “unfairness” of how it had been handled.
Admitting to being at the whim of one’s emotions is an excuse that would never fly for Ford or any other woman.
The ability to be considered both emotional and rational is rare for women.
“The gendered binary of emotion (coded as feminine) versus reason (coded as masculine) has been perpetuated to the detriment of some and to the benefit of others. That is something that decades, if not centuries of feminist theory and historicizing has taught us,” Garvey said.
When women do display outbursts of anger, they are much more likely to be defined by them. The “angry woman” is collapsed into a category of incoherence and instability. She is deemed untrustworthy and altogether overly emotional.
But Kavanaugh has the privilege to be seen as angry and defensive without it becoming him. He has the privilege to be furious and enraged without being immediately dismissed. Because he is a white man, he has the privilege of acting wildly inappropriate at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing investigating his alleged sexual assault of three women, while still securing all of the votes needed to become our new associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.