While covering a women’s rights protest once, I asked a man in the crowd if he considered himself a feminist. He spread his arms wide. “My mom is awesome!” he declared.
And that is what brings us to Brett Kavanaugh.
The Supreme Court nominee didn’t talk about Roe v. Wade when he introduced himself to the public on live TV, or about equal pay between genders, but he did talk a lot about women. Specific women, the ones in his own house or his own office. His “trailblazer” mom. His “source of strength” wife. His former boss, Elena Kagan, who hired him as a professor at Harvard Law.
Famous men now do this a lot. Watch any Hollywood actor eager to brand himself as enlightened on a press junket, and sooner or later he’ll mention his strong mother (Ryan Gosling) or his feminist girlfriend (Chris Evans). In his confirmation hearings, Neil M.Gorsuch spoke of standing on the symbolic shoulders of his mom, one of her law school’s first female graduates. Even people who hated Donald Trump took comfort in how much he seemed to respect his daughter Ivanka.
And so on Monday, after the president briefed us on Kavanaugh’s academic résumé, the nominee pulled out his Female Relationship Résumé: the metaphorical document through which the public is meant to divine that a man is an ally to all women, based on his relationships with three to five particular women, whose names he will now recite.
Worried Kavanaugh’s views on gender roles could be too old-fashioned? He won’t mention Title IX, but he will tell you that his daughters, Margaret and Liza, are “spirited,” and that he took them to the women’s matchup between U-Conn and Notre Dame in this year’s Final Four.
Listening to a man in power talk about how much he loves the women in his life is a moving thing that is actually pretty useless.
Plenty of powerful men, we’ve learned in the past year, can have wonderful relationships with some women and terrible ones with women at large. Witness the letter written by female execs in support of Tom Brokaw after he was accused of making advances toward NBC underlings. Reading it, one could ascertain only that he managed to never harass those particular letter-writers. (Congratulations?)
The trouble with the Female Relationship Résumé is that it’s about individual interactions and emotional relationships, not about systems, societal problems and how the bearer of the résumé plans to address them.
Kavanaugh might be a terrific ally for women at large. But we’re not going to learn that based on what he says about the ones he knows. We need follow-up.
Did he feel that they brought different ways of thinking and communicating to the table?
Had he sought out female law clerks intentionally, believing it was important to compensate for centuries of underrepresentation? (If so, how does this inform his opinions on affirmative action?)
If he was proud of addressing gender equality in his staff, did he have any concerns about the Supreme Court — where women currently constitute only a third of the bench?
Kavanaugh’s speech, again, was short. He couldn’t have been expected to parse such questions in what was essentially a speed-date introduction to the American public.
But these are the types of questions the Senate Judiciary Committee should raise in its confirmation hearings: What does Kavanaugh’s love of the specific women in his life have to do with the women he’ll never meet, and the laws that will govern them?
Without that information, Kavanaugh’s mention of his law clerks came across not like gender equality but self-congratulatory résumé padding.
In the beginning of the #MeToo era, a spate of men talked about being appalled by harassment, rooting their dismay in concern for their offspring. The phrase, “as a father of daughters” became a particular version of the Female Relationship Résumé.
“As the father of four daughters,” Matt Damon said, “this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.”
“As the father of three daughters,” said Geraldo Rivera, “I urge all who have been offended to reach out.”
The phrase eventually drew a backlash. Why should it take having a daughter to understand that harassing or assaulting a woman was a bad thing? It seems highly precarious for the daily lives of millions of women to depend on a man’s personal passage to fatherhood.
It seems highly precarious, too, for the daily lives of millions of women to depend on a Supreme Court justice’s feelings about his wife and daughters and female law clerks.
Within a few hours of Kavanaugh’s nomination, the White House distributed a document with 34 testimonies to the nominee’s talent and character — senators and representatives who praised him in sound bites. The testimonies called Kavanaugh “impressive.” They called him “impeccable.” They praised his “extensive record of proven, Conservative ideology.”
All of the testimonies were written by men.