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Why Americans Are Still Grappling With Christine Blasey Ford’s Legacy

7 minute read
Haley Sweetland Edwards is the Nation Editor at TIME.

Even if you count the time television cameras lingered on her face after she left the packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room, Christine Blasey Ford’s appearance on the public stage lasted less than 4½ hours. For any other well-known figure, that would be a blink of an eye. But for Ford, it was long enough to establish herself, for millions, as something of an American hero.

As she described having been sexually assaulted by then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when she was 15 years old, protesters in the Capitol scrawled We Believe on the palms of their hands. The hashtag ­#WhyIDidntReport exploded on social media—both a ­rallying cry for survivors and a rebuke to those who doubted that a woman might wait decades to come forward. Shirts emblazoned with Ford’s face went on sale across the Internet; celebrities from Julianne Moore to Lady Gaga voiced their support for her; and Ford herself received more than 150,000 personal letters, from teenagers and middle-aged women and octogenarians, all of whom recognized themselves in her pain.

But in the weeks and months after that whirlwind, we’re still grappling with her legacy. A year into a massive reckoning on sexual harassment, her experience was at once a galvanizing illustration of how much had changed and a poignant reminder of all that had not. After all, her decision to speak out despite her terror failed to move the needle among those in power on Capitol Hill. Just over a week after Ford’s emotional Sept. 27 testimony, the Senate vote on Kava­naugh, who has “categorically and unequivocally” denied her claims, unfolded exactly as it might have had she not come forward at all. The man she had accused in such excruciating detail was honored with a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

It was in this context that millions of Americans—and perhaps especially those who related to Ford’s description of the after­effects of sexual assault—felt something akin to a gut punch: What was the point?

Part of the frustration arose from the fact that Ford was, in many ways, an ideal witness. She was likable, relatable and, as a professor of psychology, able to offer fluent explanations of brain science. When asked to account for the certainty of some of her recollections, she patiently explained how norepinephrine and epinephrine encode memories into the hippo­campus. When asked how sure she was that it was Kava­naugh who attacked her more than three decades ago, she was unflinching. “One hundred percent,” she said.

Ford was also perhaps an ideal witness in another way. Because her demeanor did not challenge persistent stereotypes about how a “good woman” should behave, viewers were forced to focus solely on the facts. During her testimony, Ford, who is a wife and mother, was unflaggingly gracious, soft-spoken and deferential. Not once did she interrupt a Senator. Not once did she refuse to answer a question. Not once did she become threatening or frustrated or—to use the word so often weaponized against passionate women­—shrill. Particularly when contrasted with the distinctly male anger on display when it came time for Kavanaugh to speak, the gender dynamics surrounding her demeanor were hard not to notice, but she appeared to navigate their perils.

After her testimony, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, congratulated her for her bravery, and President Trump, rarely one to give credence to the claims of female accusers, called her a “very fine woman” and a “credible witness.”

The reaction among the top male Senators of the Judiciary Committee gave many people a jolt of hope, if only because it stood in sharp contrast to the reaction that met similar testimony 26 years earlier. In 1991, when Anita Hill had come before the same committee to accuse then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she had been discredited, mocked and dismissed. This time around, Ford had been commended. The moment seemed to confirm that a profound and wished-for cultural sea change had taken place.

So when Kavanaugh was nevertheless confirmed, many who had done such wishing were devastated. If a woman like Ford could not halt the machinery of power, there seemed to be little hope for anyone else. In responding to reporters’ questions, Senators who voted to confirm the new Justice tended to perform a rhetorical balancing act. Some defended their votes by deflecting questions of Ford’s credibility. They believed that she’d been assaulted, they explained; they just didn’t believe Kavanaugh had done it. Others sidestepped the issue. Even if the assault did happen as she described, they seemed to suggest, it simply didn’t matter: no adult should be accountable for his behavior as a teenager many decades ago. Whether fully sincere or merely wary of backlash, they were nicer to Ford than their counterparts had been to Hill—but the system that undergirds their power forged ahead just the same.

And President Trump, after initially describing Ford’s testimony as “compelling,” showed that perhaps the optics hadn’t changed that much after all. At political rallies in the lead-up to the midterm elections, he began mocking Ford, imitating her inability to remember some details about the evening she was assaulted. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Trump said, waving his hands. “What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know.”

Soon conservative media jumped on the bandwagon. Right-wing firebrand Rush Limbaugh labeled Ford “the product of a Democrat Party operation,” while Fox News pundits questioned the timing of her decision to go public, despite her explanations of how she’d made up her mind. Just weeks before the November elections, the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination had become a political liability for Democrats. Polls reported that Republican voters, motivated by Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s impassioned rebuttal, were now more likely to vote.

And yet, around dinner tables and in online discussions, Ford’s supporters defended her legacy. Here was someone who had sacrificed her privacy and her family’s security because she believed it was her civic duty to tell her story. Here was someone who believed that a consideration of a man’s character was incomplete unless it took into account credible accusations of sexual assault. Here was someone who believed, ultimately, that a single voice could still make a difference. That those ideals are not always reflected in real life does not diminish them.

In the days after Kavanaugh was sworn in, the leaders of the #MeToo movement made this point in an open “love letter” to Ford. She showed that speaking up does matter—that the world is listening, even if the people in front of you are not.

Acts of heroism, after all, are not merely a means to an end. Even those who believe that Kavanaugh belongs on the bench may be hard-pressed to disagree. Ventura County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Helus, who rushed into the Borderline Bar & Grill during a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 7, was no less valiant because he was killed by friendly fire. The late Senator John McCain, who refused to use his father’s connections to be released from a prison in Vietnam, was no less selfless because he was captured. Courage is not transactional. In coming before the American public for not quite 4½ hours, Ford was regarded as a hero not because of the results she delivered but because, in doing what she believed to be right, she reminded the rest of us how it’s done.

This story is part of TIME’s Person of the Year 2018 issue. Discover more stories here.

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com

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