The GOP Doesn’t Trust Women

Not when it comes to sexual assault accusations and not with the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

A statue of Lady Justice toppling over.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Continentaleurope/Wikipedia.

You could be forgiven if you missed the pivot. For a few days after her testimony, Donald Trump and Senate Republicans feigned regard for Christine Blasey Ford’s veracity and pain. Then, in the blink of an eye, she was reduced to a liar and hoax-adjacent scammer, so they could seat their guy on the bench.

As Josh Marshall pointed out last week, the political manipulation of Ford’s story—the slow slide from “we believe her” to “we believe her, but she’s wrong about the identity of her attacker” happened without an explicit turn. For a scant few days, Republicans were careful not to call her a liar or an operative. After her testimony, the president himself deemed her “credible.”  And then, ironically enough, Susan Collins became the first Republican to say out loud what Ed Whelan had tried to claim two weeks earlier: Ford was indeed attacked, but she was also confused about the date and the identity of her assailant, no matter that when asked about this under oath, she testified to being 100 percent certain that it was Brett Kavanaugh. By Monday of last week, at the swearing-in-slash-pep-rally for Kavanaugh at the White House, President Donald Trump triumphantly made the leap from “she doesn’t remember” to “it was a hoax … it was all made up, it was fabricated, and it’s a disgrace.” That’s all it took. Pretend to believe her to her face, condemn her as a liar and a fabricator once she has stepped away (also, claim repeatedly that she had no corroboration while refusing to look for or consider any corroboration). And to finish the circuit, of course, by Sunday, the president reminded us all that the truth of Ford’s narrative was immaterial anyway because “we won.”

By initially avoiding the ugliness of “she lies” and only fully embracing it days later, the GOP effectively vaulted the whole claim into the well-known fuzziness of “well, women are unreliable narrators of their own lives, so really, how can you believe them?” If you stop and consider that these same Republicans stand poised to limit women’s future access to basic contraceptive care and abortion, it’s clear that this is a chilling theme that transcends sexual harassment or assault or #MeToo. The party for whom the Trumpian coda to the Kavanaugh scandal seems to be “she was credible, and we still don’t care,” now controls the Supreme Court, constitutes one-sixth of the federal bench, and populates the legislatures that will determine the consequences for women’s health.

As we process the events of last week, please understand that this moment in law and gender is not really about Ford and Kavanaugh anymore. It is about resurfacing a very, very old story about women and their agency and their truth: Women’s experiences, memories, and suffering don’t matter; their control over the truth of what they themselves have lived through is determined by those who win. And if you remember those tropes from the Bible or from Shakespeare, well, yes, so do I.

In just two short weeks, reviving that narrative required just three deft moves, distinct acts, if you will: She’s credible, she’s confused, she lied. This distortion of Ford’s memory has in turn opened the door to a new story—that all women lie about sexual assault, that men are not safe and that women as a class are untrustworthy and manipulative, that their sole power lies in their ability to lie about sex and that they will forever use that power to trap men, to extort men, and to manipulate men. The first lady cautions that women who want to speak up ought to amass bulletproof evidence of their future sexual assaults—neither their word nor contemporaneous reporting will bolster their claims after all.

I mention this only because the backlash isn’t limited to Ford (though the backlash against her is severe and disturbing—she cannot return to her home because death threats have made it impossible). There has been ample reporting about the chilling effect her hearing will have on women reporting sexual assault, particularly if the takeaway is that women need to have a processed rape kit, a police escort, and video footage in order to be believed about assault. But testimony is evidence, indeed it’s often the only evidence, even though it’s very easy to say that the testimony alone should not be credible, particularly when investigators are precluded from collecting any other evidence. What we’ve witnessed is the disturbing assertion that testimony is actually meaningless.

But what has happened in the debate on women’s credibility has implications not merely in terms of women reporting sexual assault or harassment in the future. It also will harm women’s access to reproductive rights. Don’t believe me? Consider this: Laws seeking to limit women’s access to abortion borrow heavily from the two stories Republicans have told about Ford: that women are confused about what has happened to them and also easily misled by cunning grifters. Anti-abortion measures that have popped up in recent decades include targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP, laws that force women to listen to (false) health warnings from their physicians, mandatory waiting periods in which they can be persuaded to change their minds, parental and spousal consent requirements, and mandatory ultrasound requirements. State efforts to dredge up clinic records to determine whether women have been pressured into terminating their pregnancies are similarly animated by the idea that women are uniquely subject to illicit control and manipulation. Iowa was pushing legislation that demanded that women seeking abortions as a result of a rape had to report that rape within 45 days. What possible reason could there be for such laws? Because women are untruthful and easily manipulated. So many of these anti-abortion moves date back to 11 years ago, when Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the fifth vote to end so-called partial-birth abortions, as a consequence of the pressing need to protect “women [who] come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.” If you start from the assumption that women don’t know their own stories, cannot be trusted to be truthful, and are easily led astray, regulation of their bodies and their choices becomes exponentially easier. The dismissal of Ford sets the table for more of the same treatment.

Whatever your own views may be of the veracity of Ford’s claims, seen through the lens of creeping abortion restrictions predicated on the idea that women are untrustworthy, the conclusion is inescapable: The new message that women regularly lie about men and sex, that they do so at the behest of powerful men, and that men are in danger as a consequence will have more and more salience in the conversation that is to come on women’s health and reproductive freedom. The party that now insists that women cannot be trusted to understand or explain their own sexual histories will gleefully become the party that assumes that women seeking medical treatment and the termination of their pregnancies are also unreliable narrators at best and liars at worst.

Ford’s testimony was slotted into the #MeToo conversation in part because she took part in this new movement that involves standing up to powerful men with complaints that date back years. This spring, writing about the Iowa effort to force women to report their rapes to the police in a timely fashion if they wanted to terminate the resulting pregnancy, Jessica Valenti presciently observed that “[t]he Iowa bill’s exception rules operate from much the same place that all anti-choice legislation does: that women are not to be trusted. That we lie about rape and that we can’t make decisions about our own bodies without interference from male politicians. It’s an especially interesting position to take in a moment when women across the country are demanding that their stories of sexual abuse be believed and taken seriously.”

Ford’s testimony and the resultant GOP claim that we believe her but we don’t care, or alternatively, that we don’t believe her and don’t care, have put Valenti’s hypothesis to the test. If the past few weeks (and really, years) are any indication, stories of sexual abuse may fall on deaf ears in the near term. And you can be sure that has set the stage for future efforts to circumscribe women’s choices by casting doubt on the reliability of their narratives in other contexts as well. This will certainly affect how female witnesses are treated in criminal or civil matters. But it will also make it ever easier to regulate their bodies and their decisions in ways we have not yet begun to contemplate.