From the beginning, the women were determined to be disruptive. There sat Brett Kavanaugh, looking every bit the world’s most decent man, with his even demeanor and sparkling résumé, ready to go through the motions and receive the benediction of the Senators before him.
Since the day of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kavanaugh had portrayed himself as a champion of women. Introducing himself to the nation, he emphasized the women he cherished, saying his mother, a judge, was his ultimate role model, talking about his daughters and the “majority” of female law clerks he’d hired. Members of the girls’ basketball teams he’s coached sat in the front rows behind him at his Senate confirmation hearing. Earlier, he had recited the names of his daughter’s teammates: “Anna, Quinn, Kelsey, Ceane, Chloe, Alex, Ava, Sophia and Margaret,” he said. “I love helping the girls grow into confident players.”
He had spent a lifetime pushing all the right buttons, and now nothing seemed to stand between the conservative federal judge and a seat on the nation’s highest court. But one after another, women interrupted. Protesters popped up in the back of the room, yelling and waving signs before being hustled out by police. Women Senators spoke out of turn: “Mr. Chairman, I’d like to be recognized,” pleaded Democrat Kamala Harris of California, to no avail. Kavanaugh sat quietly in the middle of it all, a cherubic smile on his face.
But the women, it turned out, weren’t done disrupting him. Just when the end seemed in sight–his confirmation vote less than a week away after a hearing that had turned up no more than the usual partisan angst–Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor, decided to put her name to a devastating accusation, charging that, some 36 years prior, when they were both in high school, Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her.
It was a hazy accusation: hesitantly lodged, short on detail and curiously timed. But Ford’s charge shattered Kavanaugh’s carefully crafted tableau, calling into doubt the image he projected. The row of young girls, legs bare in their private-school skirts, looked different now. In the ensuing scramble, Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote was postponed, and he and Ford were invited to testify before the committee on Sept. 24. The prospect of such an extraordinary public hearing conjured obvious parallels to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Twenty-seven years later, another professor with misgivings about coming forward had leveled allegations against a conservative Supreme Court nominee on the eve of his confirmation. And what had seemed a done deal became a fraught and fitting modern morality play.
But while the political spectacle may be similar, this battle will unfold in a different era. Every week brings new variations on the theme of women, racked with pain and rage, rising up in protest after too many years of trauma and terrified silence. Every week, too, has brought fresh reminders of the extent to which our whole reality is the product of the privilege and prejudices of entitled men. They decided what the story was, who got ahead, what the laws were and to whom they applied. Who lived and who died, from prisoners on death row to the fetus in the womb. Who was believed and who was destroyed. The men handled the disruptions quickly and quietly, with lawyers and payments and handshakes, with the grip of a policeman’s fist and a gavel pounded on a desk. Until suddenly there were too many to be contained.
Kavanaugh rejects the charge made against him. “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation,” he said in response. “I did not do this back in high school or at any time.” The White House has stood behind him, and his supporters say he is determined to surmount this last-minute obstacle. “What is being attempted here is a smear campaign to destroy his reputation as a decent man, and he’s not going to allow that to happen,” says a source involved in the confirmation process who speaks to Kavanaugh regularly. “He’s steadfast in his resolve to see it through and to tell the truth and to clear his name.”
His opponents say this must be the time when the scales tip in the other direction. “Now is our moment,” says Ilyse Hogue, head of the abortion-rights group NARAL. “We’ve had enough. We’re not going to take any more. Women are determined to make this a turning point in this country.”
With just a few weeks to go until the first national election of the Trump era, one in which all signs point to a tsunami of female rage as the decisive factor, a dramatic face-off between Kavanaugh and his accuser may be on the horizon–a showdown between two individuals and their memories of what did or didn’t happen so many years ago. But the stakes go beyond that, to who is believed and who decides the truth at this turbulent moment in America. Decisions–a high schooler’s, a judge’s, a middle-aged professor’s–have consequences. How the Kavanaugh drama plays out could be the ultimate test of today’s struggle for political and cultural power.
It was 1982 or thereabouts: “Eye of the Tiger,” Reaganomics, E.T. Christine Blasey, approximately 15, lived in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., and attended an elite all-girls private school in Bethesda, Md. One summer night, perhaps after a day at the country-club pool, she went to a party at someone’s house. She was wearing her one-piece bathing suit under her clothes.
She drank beer in the family room, along with some boys she didn’t know well. They were from Georgetown Prep, the all-boys private school a few miles away. The boys at Georgetown Prep had fathers who were lobbyists and businessmen and government officials. They were being groomed to perpetuate the prosperity and status into which they’d been born.
In Ford’s account, Kavanaugh pushed her into a bedroom as she came up the stairs. Loud music was playing. His friend Mark Judge, across the room, was laughing, Ford recalled, as a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her down and tried to get under her clothes to her teenage body.
Ford wasn’t laughing. She was terrified. What if I die? she thought. She tried to scream, but he covered her mouth with his hand. He fumbled, frustrated, with her swimsuit. Finally, after Judge jumped on them, she wriggled free, locked herself in a bathroom and, when she’d heard the boys leave the room, ran out of the house, she said in an interview with the Washington Post.
About a decade later, as Ford moved through young adulthood to her academic career, a different man, Clarence Thomas, was nominated to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill, a woman who’d worked with him, came forward to accuse him of a prolonged campaign of sexual harassment. She faced a wall of male Senators from both parties, who needled and disbelieved her, and voted through the nominee, after he called the hearing a “high-tech lynching.” A year later there was an election, and women mobbed the polls, vastly expanding their numbers in Congress. Hill had lost her confrontation with the forces of power, but she’d helped propel a decades-long shift in the way women perceived their place in society.
Many more years would pass before Christine Blasey Ford confronted what she said happened when she was a teenager. Thirty years after the alleged incident, a 51-year-old married mother of two working as a research psychologist at a university in Northern California, it still weighed on her. She’d never told anyone the details of the incident until, in 2012, she related the story to her therapist and her husband. Notes from that session largely corroborate her account, according to the Post story, but if Ford said the boy’s name, the therapist didn’t write it down.
By July 2018, the boy she remembered was mentioned on the short list of potential nominees to the Supreme Court. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in the middle of that–she had a quiet life, was politically liberal but hardly an activist, had suffered enough already. But it didn’t feel right not to say anything. So she sent a letter to her Congresswoman and left an anonymous message on a newspaper tip line. She figured they would find a way to do something about it; she figured she could keep her name out of it.
The Congresswoman and the newspaper didn’t know what to do with the anonymous accusation. The boy was on course to replace his former boss, retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, potentially changing the face of American law by cementing a conservative majority for a generation. On July 30, Ford wrote a letter to California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, saying Kavanaugh had assaulted her but requesting anonymity. Feinstein said nothing publicly until mid-September, when, with Kavanaugh on the cusp of his confirmation vote, she announced that she had referred an unspecified matter to the FBI.
Ford had hired a lawyer and taken a lie-detector test, but as rumors circulated and reporters started showing up at her door, she concluded she would have to put her name behind the allegation. “Now I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation,” she told the Washington Post in a detailed account that is the only public statement she has made. Ford’s lawyer didn’t respond to an interview request for this article.
For his part, Kavanaugh stood by his blanket denial. “This is a completely false allegation,” he said. “I have never done anything like what the accuser describes–to her or to anyone.”
The reaction was swift and furious. The Senate delayed a Sept. 20 committee vote on Kavanaugh, and Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley scheduled a hearing for Monday, Sept. 24. Ford had said she was willing to give her testimony to the Senate, but on Sept. 18 her lawyer announced that Ford wanted a proper investigation first. Democrats insisted more time was needed for the FBI to probe the matter; by midweek it wasn’t clear whether the planned hearing would go forward.
Ford’s fears about going public have been validated. Furious partisans bombarded her with threats and abuse, forcing her to hire security and move out of her home temporarily, her lawyer said. Ford also received an outpouring of support, the lawyer added. The White House of Donald Trump–a President who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 19 women, has been caught on tape boasting about sexual assault and has admitted to paying off women who claim to have had affairs with him–was measured in its response. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said Ford “should not be insulted and should not be ignored.” Trump, who has called all his accusers liars and frequently expressed sympathy for men accused of sexual misconduct, lamented the accusation but said it merited a delay in the process.
At the same time, Republicans geared up to defend Kavanaugh. A conservative group announced it would spend $1.5 million to air an ad featuring a longtime female friend attesting to his character. Advocates released supportive statements from two of his former girlfriends. The suite of offices on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that served as the nerve center for Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings once again bustled with activity. Kavanaugh huddled with White House counsel Don McGahn, who is shepherding his nomination, and repeated his blanket denials, a White House official said. He made calls to lawmakers and spent hours in mock cross-examination about the allegation, his conduct and his character.
Because he has explicitly denied ever behaving in the manner Ford described, any evidence that supports her account would shatter his credibility. “He emphatically denied that the allegations were true,” said Senator Susan Collins, the moderate Maine Republican who is considered a key swing vote, after discussing the allegations with Kavanaugh in an hourlong phone conversation. “He said that he had never acted that way, not only with this unnamed accuser but with any woman. He was absolutely emphatic about that.” Collins added, “Obviously, if Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying.”
At the same time, the details missing from Ford’s story make it equally possible that evidence will emerge to undermine it. She says she is not sure when the alleged incident occurred, who hosted the party or how she got to the party. The source involved in the process expects new revelations to fill what he called the “gaps” in Ford’s story. “An individual who puts an allegation out with some serious gaps invites that kind of gap filling,” the source says. “Sometimes that gap filling helps corroborate what’s already there, and sometimes it completely blows the story out of the water.”
The same moderate Republicans and red-state Democrats to whom Kavanaugh’s squeaky-clean introduction was targeted are now jittery and hesitant about his confirmation prospects. Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, another Republican who supports abortion rights, were among the first to call for hearings. Democrats Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin, all of whom are up for re-election in states Trump won handily and were considered possible votes for Kavanaugh, also called for further investigation. The GOP’s one-vote majority means that without any Democratic votes, it can afford only one defection to get the nomination through.
All this comes against the backdrop of an election season that was already shaping up as a referendum on male impunity and female empowerment. Before Ford came forward, the major issues in Kavanaugh’s hearings were how he might rule on cases related to abortion and Trump’s susceptibility to prosecution–two issues that relate directly to the same questions of power and autonomy. Both parties have every incentive to fight to the finish: Democrats see an opportunity to galvanize their already furious base, while Republicans, who’d hoped to put a big election-eve win on the board, fear discouraging theirs.
Into this storm will step two people, a man and a woman, who were once a boy and a girl, who may or may not have collided on a hot suburban night so many years ago. What happens next will answer the central question: Decisions have consequences–but for whom?
With reporting by Charlotte Alter and Alana Abramson/New York; Philip Elliot/Tampa; and Brian Bennet, Tessa Berenson, Abby Vesoulis and Justin Worland/Washington
This appears in the October 01, 2018 issue of TIME.