How Brett Kavanaugh Erases Inconvenient Women

He is a champion of the women he knows personally. For the rest, he has no compunction about dismissing their very humanity.

Demonstrators protest against the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court Justice in Washington, DC on Sept. 24, 2018.
Demonstrators protest against the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court Justice in Washington, DC on Sept. 24, 2018. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For all the pain and trauma brought up by this week’s turn in the roiling national debate around the sexual assault allegations against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the story about his 1983 high school yearbook entry is almost the most painful. According to an account Monday in the New York Times, Kavanaugh’s page noted that he was a “Renate Alumnius.” As the Times revealed:

The word “Renate” appears at least 14 times in Georgetown Preparatory School’s 1983 yearbook, on individuals’ pages and in a group photo of nine football players, including Judge Kavanaugh, who were described as the “Renate Alumni.” It is a reference to Renate Schroeder, then a student at a nearby Catholic girls’ school.

Two of Judge Kavanaugh’s classmates say the mentions of Renate were part of the football players’ unsubstantiated boasting about their conquests.

Renate Schroeder Dolphin, the woman who was the target of this sexual boasting, had earlier this year signed a letter supporting Kavanaugh. In a statement written after she learned of the yearbook code, she said, “I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way.”

A spokeswoman for Kavanaugh advised the Times that the inside joke was simply a reference to a single high school event that the two attended together, during which they “shared a brief kiss good night.” Dolphin said she never kissed him.

Compared to the raft of recent stories about alleged violent sexual attacks, the yearbook story is hardly Earth-shattering. It slots nicely into the “boys will be boys” narrative Kavanaugh supporters are playing out to claim that “roughhousing” and youthful experimentation shouldn’t be classed as sexual assault, even as it widens the gap between the choirboy image Kavanaugh is attempting to paint and the mounting evidence that in his youth he often seemed to behave like every guy in a convertible in every John Hughes movie ever.

But in addition to standing as yet more evidence that drinking was a big part of the young Kavanaugh’s story, what is also unmistakable in the “Renate” story is the absolute, seemingly mindless cruelty toward women who didn’t know they were the targets of such abuse. Even if you accept the anodyne version of the story—that these boys were all simply proud to have dated Renate (even though they did not, in fact, date Renate)—and the anodyne platitude, again delivered through a spokeswoman, that “[Kavanaugh] admired her very much then, and he admires her to this day,” the throughline here is becoming too familiar to miss. Indeed, it is the same one that emerged in the Kavanaugh hearings: The women who matter to Kavanaugh and Senate Republicans in this process are the high-status women—the lawyers and the girls’ basketball team and Amy Chua’s daughter. Their experience of Kavanaugh is all that should be credited. Other stories about Kavanaugh can be ignored.

Indeed, Kavanaugh said this very thing Monday night in his Fox interview when he insisted that we should all “listen to the people who’ve known me best my whole life,” while dismissing as “smears” and “coordinated” attacks the myriad claims—including numerous claims by Mark Judge, who is also named in the alleged high school assault—that Kavanaugh could be recklessly cruel, especially when drinking, to girls he didn’t know and doesn’t recall.

This is the same dynamic that so frustrates women seeking to contend with Kavanaugh’s judicial record. It is certainly compelling and important that he was a mentor to female students and law clerks. But that is half the story. In addition to that, he has had, and will in the future have, exponentially greater impacts on the women he does not know. And if we have learned anything from this process, it is that he has shown himself time and again to be someone who doesn’t have a good deal of empathy or solicitude for the women not in his immediate orbit. During the hearings, the striking manifestation of this was his cavalier attitude toward Jane Doe, a migrant in government custody seeking an abortion for which she had already been granted legal permission. The same dynamic has now played out in real life as Kavanaugh has found himself charged with the fact that there was a good deal of drinking and a good deal of overt shaming of women that happened among his high school friends and the fraternity and secret society to which he belonged at Yale. Time and again, the message seems to be that Kavanaugh was a perfectly nice person who could also treat women, and especially women he didn’t know, as immaterial. Unfortunately, part of being a champion of women is understanding that you can still degrade or diminish or deny the dignity of women you don’t happen to know personally—that their dignitary interests are as important as those of your female clerks and high school pals.

One of the aspects of the new Debbie Ramirez allegations that emerged earlier this week is the statement made by James Roche, his freshman-year roommate at Yale. While Roche didn’t recall the incident Ramirez described, he said:

Although Brett was normally reserved, he was a notably heavy drinker, even by the standards of the time, and that he became aggressive and belligerent when he was very drunk. I did not observe the specific incident in question, but I do remember Brett frequently drinking excessively and becoming incoherently drunk.

I was also struck by Roche’s claim that “Debbie was very worried about fitting in. She felt that everyone at Yale was very rich, very smart and very sophisticated and that as a Puerto Rican woman from a less privileged background she was an outsider.” Essentially, the between-the-lines message here seems to be that Ramirez was not a woman Brett Kavanaugh would have felt he had to champion. But that fact alone doesn’t make her account untrue.

I am going to state yet again that I didn’t know Kavanaugh at Yale and have no firsthand knowledge of his conduct there. I am going to echo the very smart and subtle point made by Matt Bai on Thursday, which is that regardless of what Kavanaugh has actually done, this could have been an opportunity for a genuine champion of women to say as follows: “Judge me for my lifetime of service, not for whatever may have happened at 17 that I was too stupid and drunk to remember.” But by insisting—in the face of copious evidence to the contrary—that behind him lies an entire lifetime of church service and chivalric treatment of women, Kavanaugh is erasing these other women as irrelevant from his story. More, he is painting himself as their victim, which will be fully realized when a sex-crimes prosecutor questions Ford on Thursday. He does not even allow, not for an instant, for the possibility that he hurt people he doesn’t remember in ways he cannot recall, and that this wouldn’t make them liars or part of a coordinated smear campaign. As Bai puts it, “My fear is that his experiences as a partying teenager didn’t actually teach him a hell of a lot about fallibility or shame. He seems not to have emerged with much appreciation for the gray areas in which most larger truths reside.”

It’s a fine line between claiming to believe victims and wanting to hear the facts they allege, and needing to protect one’s own reputational interests. Heaven knows, Judge Kavanaugh is in a nearly impossible place between evincing respect for these women, who have come forth reluctantly and with contemporaneous proof, and calling them outright operatives and liars, which appears to be what the GOP strategy has now become. But wherever the line may be, between fact and fabrication, between truth and lie, and between vino and veritas, it can apparently be drawn for Brett Kavanaugh between the women I know best and the women who just don’t count. That’s why the yearbook story matters. That’s why 17-year-old Jane Doe matters.

The “women know I am virtuous” standard is a fault line that can work—with only dubious moral efficacy—for private citizens. But it works not at all when those in power have the ability to impact the lives of millions of women, who don’t know him at all. These invisible women who claim Kavanaugh has harmed them should be heard out and treated with at least a modicum of respect, precisely because they have now become a place holder for the invisible women whose lives he will shape for years to come. That some women are said to count more than others is not a defense to the current charges. It is the definition of the problem.