We Don't Owe Our Fathers Anything
This piece was written on Friday, the 28th of September, 2018 and updated on Friday, the 5th of October, 2018.
In his opening statement at the Senate Judiciary Hearing, Brett Kavanaugh asked to be judged “by the standard that you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother or your son.” (You can read the whole transcript here.) Our Political Editor, Lauren, brought this line back to my attention this morning, as we expressed our despair, saying that it was the smartest thing he said in his statement, the key to appealing not only to the group of old, white men in front of him, but to reaching that 53% of white women who voted for Trump.
It will, no doubt, be the line that assures that he will be confirmed as a Supreme Court judge, but even worse, I think it will be the line that normalizes his behavior in the eyes of the country, that makes it okay and adds even more pressure to American women to take men’s actions upon themselves, to internalize their assaults – whether sexual, verbal, psychological or even social – and keep quiet and forgive. As if women don’t already feel overwhelming guilt in these situations because of our social conditioning, now they are being reminded that the men assaulting them are fathers and brothers and sons, resorting to yet more manipulation that places responsibility on victims rather than on their aggressors.
For years now, one of the only ways to get through to men to get them to empathize with survivors of assault has been to remind them that survivors are daughters and wives and mothers and nieces, because so many men – conservative men in particular – seem to be incapable of relating to women without placing them in relation to themselves. “Would you want your daughter to go through this? Would you treat your mother this way?” It’s effective rhetoric. It appeals to humanity, claiming human ties as the ultimate bond, but it activates a hierarchy in doing so and diminishes cis women while doing so and goes even further by erasing gender-non-conforming and trans individuals altogether. Still, this sort of rhetoric applies to all sorts of situations. It seems, afterall, that we as women are no more than the belongings of men.
Don’t we deserve to exist in our own rights? To be seen as individuals? To be heard when we speak up, without being told that we’re hysterical? Without being told that we don’t know what we’re saying, that we’re lying, that we don’t know our own minds?
It seems not. Not in the eyes of men. Not in the eyes of the patriarchy.
Often, speaking up or coming forward with stories of abuse or assault means fighting those beliefs, wrestling that internal demon that plagues the lives of women or anyone who has lived or been made to live any part of their life as a woman, pushing us to doubt ourselves, to doubt what we’ve experienced, what we believe. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s in my head. Maybe he didn’t mean to do what he did.
Guilt is drummed into our heads by our society. We’re conditioned to always consider others first, even when we ourselves are hurting. Our duty, we are told, is not to ourselves but to others.
While we like to think this is slowly changing, it’s something that is still there, deeply engrained in the way that we behave. We feel we need to accommodate patriarchal standards, if not men themselves. We know we need to make them comfortable to keep ourselves safe.
This exact dynamic played out in yesterday’s Senate hearing. Lily Herman explicitly spelled out the gendered behavior we all saw and noticed in the hearing, and sure enough Dr. Christine Blasey Ford remained calm and collected, taking what should be unnecessary steps to make the men around her comfortable, especially considering the way they did not show her the same courtesy.
Instead, Kavanaugh yelled belligerently, turning so consistently to anger that he not only made it clear that he is unqualified to take on a role that would require him to calmly listen and prioritize justice at every turn, but he also brought to life every privileged white man who has ever been asked to consider his wrongdoings and reminded every woman and everyone who is not a straight, white man why it is so scary to speak our truths. An over (and mis-)quoted line of literature (a line in a play called The Mourning Bride by William Congreve) says that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but I think the truth we all know is that this is often used to further paint women as emotional, irrational beings. The angriest creature on earth is a rich, white man who has had his privilege put into question.
Begging us then to judge Kavanaugh just as we would want our fathers and our husbands and our brothers and our sons to be judged then is a manipulative insult added to injury. Such a comment makes it clear that the only way men relate to women is when they think of them in this context, as their women. By turning the tables, he is acknowledging the rhetoric and grossly placing himself in the role of a victim. It is a studied remark and an intentional one.
What’s more, it is one that plays into the guilt and sense of obligation we already feel as women. If his plea picks up steam – and no doubt it will as tweets are already circulating asking people to imagine what they would do if something like this happened to their father or husband or son – then it will become a common saying, further drummed into survivors heads, silently or explicitly urging them to remain silent, giving them yet another, twisted, unnecessary supposed responsibility to take care of the men who hurt them.
The thing though is that we don’t owe our fathers or our husbands anything. If they hurt anyone or behave unethically or criminally, then they deserve to face the consequences. That they are men, or that they are middle-aged, wealthy white men, should never absolve them of their wrongdoings. We owe them nothing but the same implementation of justice they constantly insist needs to be mercilessly applied to every non-white man they see.
(Our sons, I’d say, are only slightly another matter. What we owe them is an education on how to be decent human beings. If we fail them in that or if they grow to behave in despicable ways despite it, then all we owe them is that same application of justice.)
We don’t owe them unconditional love and support and forgiveness when their acceptance of us as human beings is conditional to our relation to them and our compliance to their needs.
A century and a half ago, they would have locked us up in asylums. Now they just luck us up in silence, by ignoring us and ignoring everything we have to say until we eventually decide that there is no point in speaking our minds.
Enough is enough.
Women have been speaking up for the past year. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke up for the sake of our justice system. Multiple women have spoken up since then. May that continue, and may it be clear that we are not our relations to men.
Update from the author on October 5th, 2018: Sure enough, the statement discussed above is proving to be the definitive take away from last week’s hearing. In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Kavanaugh repeated the same sentiment:
I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been. I might have been too emotional at times. I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said. I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad.
In fact, this sentiment comes across so strongly that it is the featured line in the WSJ piece:
I’ve discussed the manipulative nature of this statement, and have nothing to add but the fact that the (notedly conservative) WSJ’s editorial choice to feature it so clearly supports my statements.