It’s comforting to believe that women would never be treated like Christine Blasey Ford in the UK. But is it really true?
I have always been an American politics nerd. Much of this can be traced back to a cold January evening in 2009, when I came home from sixth form to watch Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration on TV. At the time, the UK prime minister was Gordon Brown, not a man renowned for his raw charisma and glamour. And so the image of Barack and Michelle slow-dancing on a star-spangled stage, while Beyoncé sang Etta James’ At Last, made my jaw drop. That, more than anything else, was the first moment I understood that American politics was fundamentally different to British politics: bigger, wilder, made for TV.
I have not changed my mind about that over the last two years. But whereas I once marvelled at the telegenic excitement of politics across the pond, today I read news from the States and feel perversely grateful that our politics – shambolic and embarrassing though it almost always is – doesn’t look like theirs.
I thought of this while watching Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. The university professor has accused Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexual assault; on Thursday (27 September), she appeared in front of a panel of senators to give her account of the attack, which she says happened when she and Kavanaugh were at high school in the Eighties.
Blasey Ford’s testimony as she described the assault was astonishing in its dignity, courage and eloquence. But the Kavanaugh hearings were also remarkable for how acutely they laid bare American misogyny. Several photos from the event went viral instantly, including one of Blasey Ford facing a panel made up almost entirely of stony-faced white men. It looked like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Many feminists have expressed their wrath towards Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham, who defended Kavanaugh and described Blasey Ford’s testimony as a “charade”. And much has already been written about how the hearings highlighted the very different standards of behaviour to which (white) men and women are held. Whereas Blasey Ford was unfailingly polite and precise in her manner and language – and would likely not have been considered a credible witness if she was not – Kavanaugh frequently dissolved into incoherent, tearful rage.
Televised, live-streamed and trending on Twitter around the world, the Kavanaugh hearings were undeniably a spectacle. And from our homes and offices in the UK, it’s easy to see such a spectacle as something uniquely and distastefully American; as yet another dramatic, devastating example of what women are put through under the Trump presidency.
Trump, of course, was elected after more than 15 women accused him of sexual harassment and/or assault, and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent. Desperate to maintain his evangelical Christian base, he has consistently stripped back funding for Planned Parenthood, the organisation that provides millions of women (and men) across the US with contraception, abortions and sexual health checks. He has also promised to pack the Supreme Court with judges who will overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that gave all women in the US the constitutional right to abortion. If confirmed, Kavanaugh is expected to vote against a woman’s right to choose.
Observing all of this as a woman from the UK can feel like rubbernecking at a car crash. We’re horrified – how could we not be? – but we know we can’t truly understand the pain that women in the US must be feeling right now. Our anger and grief is strangely dislocated: distant, second-hand.
Trump’s rise to power has also sparked the widespread resurgence of a very British sense of moral superiority over our US cousins, one that had laid dormant since the violent stupidity of the George W Bush administration. Overall, as a nation, we like to look across the Atlantic and whisper to ourselves: ‘That wouldn’t happen here.’
America's history of choosing between a composed, informed woman and a sputtering, belligerent man is not giving me a tremendous amount of faith tonight.— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) September 28, 2018
Remember how composed @HillaryClinton had to be during the Benghazi hearings?— Alison McQuade (@akmcquade) September 27, 2018
Remember how composed she had to be during debates?
Remember the time you were told you were too passionate or emotional?
Remember the time you were told you weren't nice enough? pic.twitter.com/0H6VO4fuTp
But if we look at how women are treated in the US and tell ourselves that the UK isn’t that bad, we’re deluding ourselves. Yes, American politicians make a gaudy spectacle out of degrading sexual assault survivors and chipping away at reproductive rights in a way that British politicians – generally – do not. But we should not let that fool us into complacency.
Women with allegations of sexual assault and harassment are routinely dragged through hell in the UK, just like Blasey Ford has been in the US. Remember the Ulster rugby trial earlier this year, in which a 21-year-old woman was cross-examined for seven days straight, her bloody knickers handed around the courtroom for examination, only for the rugby stars she said had raped her to be acquitted?
Or consider Kate Maltby, the Tory activist who accused Conservative politician Damian Green of sexual harassment last winter, and subsequently received violent threats online after a Daily Mail article described her as a “political groupie”. Or the Ched Evans case from 2016, in which another young woman had her sexual history pored over in salacious detail in court, as though enjoying consensual sex meant she could not possibly have been raped by a footballer. (Evans was also eventually cleared of rape.)
The woman in the Evans case was named thousands of times on social media despite supposedly being granted lifelong anonymity, and received so many death threats she had to change her name and move house five times. Blasey Ford, too, has had to move house and hire private security after receiving death threats.
Similarly, we cannot disparage Trump’s appalling attitude towards women’s bodily autonomy while turning a blind eye to the fact that thousands of British women are still banned from accessing legal abortion in Northern Ireland, thanks to the DUP. Indeed, if we’re going to scorn US Republicans for being anti-women, anti-choice religious zealots, we should take a long hard look at who’s propping up Theresa May’s government.
The events currently unfolding in the US are uniquely American in their aesthetic and rhetoric. The blow-dries and accents and teeth, the references to country clubs and keg parties, and the questions about whether Kavanaugh believes in god could not have come from anywhere else.
But the underlying themes – women not being believed when they report sexual assault, women’s bodily autonomy being denied, and privileged white men always, always being given the benefit of the doubt – are universal. When British women talk about Trump’s America, we must remember that.
Images: Getty Images