Who will question Christine Blasey Ford on Thursday when she sits across from the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about an alleged assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh during the summer of 1982?
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee chairman, and his Republican colleagues have proposed ceding that important responsibility to an outside female lawyer or female aides.
Dr. Blasey and her lawyers have pushed back, demanding that Mr. Grassley and his colleagues question her themselves. They are right to do so. The Republicans’ attempt to outsource the questioning of Dr. Blasey is cynical, sexist and cowardly.
Let’s start with the cynicism. Mr. Grassley said, “We reserve the option to have female staff attorneys, who are sensitive to the particulars of Dr. Blasey’s allegations and are experienced investigators, question both witnesses.” The chairman knows the optics are bad for him. Mr. Grassley and his 10 Republican colleagues on the judiciary committee are all white men. Their median age is about 60; Mr. Grassley and his colleague Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah are in their mid-80s.
None want to be seen grilling Dr. Blasey in front of tens of millions of Americans. We’ve watched that horror movie before, during the Hill-Thomas hearings in 1991, presided over by the Democrats. No one seems anxious for a sequel.
But the solution isn’t to remove men from the script. It’s to ask that they embody different characters: people who can pose respectful, probing questions, rather than bullies intent on shaming and demeaning the witness.
Many people think that’s impossible, which leads to the second point: The Republicans’ plan is sexist. Handing off the questioning of Dr. Blasey to female staff members would be a gross departure from Senate practice and based on the risible idea that the questioning of sexual assault survivors is “women’s work.”
I have written about the entrenched gender bias against female litigators. After a year of reporting, what stood out was a phenomenon of women being steered, often explicitly, into specialties where the cases turned on proving or disproving injuries to women’s genitals and reproductive organs.
Whether it was female prosecutors clustered in rape and child-abuse units or suddenly becoming very in demand when it came to time to cross-examine plaintiffs injured from allegedly defective “female” products, the consensus was that “it takes a woman to know a woman.” Again and again, women are told that these are their only real opportunities in courtrooms — and now, apparently, Senate hearings. But what looks like an invitation for advancement may actually be enclosure in what I call the Vagina Ghetto, a restricted space outside of which women are not welcome. It is time to stop reinforcing this tired trope.
Quite rightly, female Senate aides are “appalled” by the idea of having Dr. Blasey questioned in this fashion. “They always have to bring a woman in to save their bacon,” a staff member told Britt Peterson, a contributing editor for Washingtonian Magazine, in an article in The Times.
Which brings me to my final point. Cowardice.
Republican senators have no problem trying Dr. Blasey in the court of public opinion. Senator Hatch has already made up his mind: Judge Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Dr. Blasey is simply “mixed up.” Lindsey Graham, another Republican committee member, memorably told The Washington Post, “I’ll listen to the lady,” then immediately implied the opposite. “We’re going to bring this to a close,” he said and called the accusation “a drive-by shooting.”
And yet, they are apparently too afraid to speak to her face to face. It is true that Dr. Blasey may prove to be a formidable opponent. She holds advanced degrees from Stanford and the University of Southern California, enjoys the respect of her colleagues and has had numerous people attest to her good character. But that’s no excuse for Republicans to shirk their responsibilities and turn tail.
Come on, gentlemen. It’s time to man up.
Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, is the author of, most recently, the forthcoming book “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction.”