Senator Heidi Heitkamp.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.
On Thursday, North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp announced she will vote no on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. This was a surprise. Heitkamp, who has said little about the nomination until now, voted to confirm Trump’s previous Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch. The most recent polls show her losing ground to a male challenger who said of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations, “Nothing evidently happened in it all, even by her own accusation… It was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere,” and then “Even if it’s all true, does it disqualify him? It certainly means that he did something really bad 36 years ago, but does it disqualify him from the Supreme Court?”
To Heitkamp it did. That the Kavanaugh vote may well go along party lines means Heitkamp is unlikely to win the same hosannas of bipartisanship bestowed upon Jeff Flake in the past week. Nonetheless, it required real courage, and the explanation she gave for her refusal was striking. As Senate Republicans have been shamelessly portraying Brett Kavanaugh as the victim of a Jim Crow–era lynch mob, and as Trump declares it “a very scary time for young men in America,” Heitkamp, a white woman under enormous political pressure in a right-leaning state, chose to make clear who she believes the real victims are.
That includes, but is not limited to, Christine Blasey Ford. “When I listened to Dr. Ford testify, I heard the voices of women I have known throughout my life who have similar stories of sexual assault and abuse,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “Countless North Dakotans and others close to me have since reached out and told me their stories of being raped or sexually assaulted — and expressed the same anguish and fear.”
In the end, Christine Blasey Ford’s privilege and access, her lawyers and her girlish voice and her desire to be of help, were not enough to grant her due process. Due process would have meant being interviewed by the FBI and having the man she accused be subject to a more searching inquiry than five-minute bursts from Democrats and aggrieved monologues from Republicans. It would have meant the FBI following up with the leads those lawyers offered. It wouldn’t have included Senate Judiciary Republicans using the press to pass on smears of Ford instead of having the FBI adjudicate them.
Heitkamp’s statement acknowledged that historically, many victims have gotten even less, and she evoked her work to expand the reach of the Violence Against Women Act: “I insisted that it include increased protection for Native women and girls.”
If that sounds like banal press release talk, it isn’t. Those increased protections were the subject of a furious fight, waged five years ago, that wound up hinging on whether white men would be held accountable. A federally funded study found that Native women were not only likelier than other women to be victims of violence, they were ”significantly more likely to have experienced violence by an interracial perpetrator.” But the very notion infuriated Senator Chuck Grassley. “The non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial,” he insisted back then.
That would be the same Senator Chuck Grassley who is presiding over Kavanaugh’s nomination now, amid an ever-louder conservative chorus that the judge — previously touted for his elite institutional acceptance — is actually the railroaded minority here. “We remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt,” said Senator John Cornyn. “He represented an unpopular person who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of his race, and his race alone.”
We also remember that Atticus Finch was a fictional white lawyer hailed as a hero for defending a black man against a white woman’s false charges of rape. That was based on an ugly reality, one in which white women’s stories of assault were only heard when their often false charges targeted black men and bolstered white supremacy; white women supplied the rationale for protection, and white men provided the mob violence. Today, powerful people understand that they need to at least appear as if they’re listening to women, even as they are reluctant to shift the balance of power any more than absolutely necessary. There are still white women who know they stand to benefit far more from aligning themselves with white, male supremacy than some objective standard of justice for all. The women supporting Kavanaugh — and voting to confirm him — are proof of this.
Thursday morning on NPR, Missy Bigelow Carr, one of the 64 women who had rapidly vouched for Brett Kavanaugh’s high-school rectitude, said coolly of Ford, “I didn’t necessarily find her that credible.” Asked about Kavanaugh’s blustery, teary testimony, though, Carr replied, “I found it emotional, as did many of my friends and people that know me and know my support of Brett, who texted me and emailed me and spoke to me how they felt it was emotional, that they were crying in a lot of cases, sobbing in other cases. It was emotional to see. It was a guy fighting for his reputation feeling that it was him against the world, which I think it has been.”
The interviewer, Rachel Martin, asked Carr if she thought that, if Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault as a high school or college student, it would be disqualifying. There was a long pause. Carr sighed. “I think that would depend on it — I guess essentially it really depends, there’s so many degrees. I think now we’re in a day where times are a little different than they were back then with what those accusations were. I think you have to look at the entire life of somebody, not something they did as a teenager back in those days there was certainly drinking of beer, that’s when you’re doing these kinds of things. An incident in high school, it’s kind of hard to believe that at this level of federal government that that’s what we’re looking at to try to disqualify somebody from this position.”
So strong is the urge to defend Kavanaugh — whom she conceded she had mostly lost touch with since their youth — that she was offering a forgiveness Kavanaugh has never asked for. “A white patriarchy persists in part by making white women dependent on white men, and then ensuring that those women enjoy benefits in exchange for their support of those men’s continued dominance, at the purposeful expense of identification with, connection to, and support of other women,” my colleague Rebecca Traister writes in her book Good and Mad.
That was, of course, true in the era Cornyn was trying to evoke on Kavanaugh’s behalf, and it is true now in the refrain heard on the right from “mothers of sons.” Here’s NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch: “As a women, and as a mother of sons, I am horrified by where this is leading for boys in our country.” Memes circulated with messages like, “Mothers of sons should be scared. It is terrifying that at any time, any girl can make up any story about any boy that can neither be proved or disproved, and ruin any boy’s life.” In Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae points out that the women who fought to protect racial hierarchy “justified their their political activism in the name of motherhood, attesting to the real power that particular gendered identities carried in the public realm. Often the assertion of ‘motherhood’ was understood to elevate their concerns and grant them a kind of moral supremacy.”
That moral supremacy, deployed on behalf of the men who run the Senate, the House, the presidency, and soon the Supreme Court, was available to Heidi Heitkamp. It could have helped her stay a senator. This was her choice. Even if in the end it makes no difference to the outcome, her resistance matters.