Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Even without the assault accusation, we knew Brett Kavanaugh was bad news for women

Kavanaugh is accused of a long-ago assault, but we already know too much about his attitudes toward women


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Amanda Marcotte
September 14, 2018 8:55PM (UTC)

After a day of growing chatter and vague media reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein had some sort of letter that contained a potentially damaging accusation about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the story is out. Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker on Friday that a woman wrote a letter alleging that Kavanaugh committed what sounds like attempted rape decades ago, when he was in high school.

"She claimed in the letter that Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, both of whom had been drinking, turned up music that was playing in the room to conceal the sound of her protests, and that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand," Mayer and Farrow write.

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Kavanaugh issued a statement saying, "I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation." At this writing, there is no publicly available evidence to back up the claims made in this letter and the accuser's identity remains unknown.

We can't say whether this story is true, either in whole or in part, but what's most relevant here is the larger context around this nomination. Women's rights and safety are a particularly pressing concern, for largely obvious reasons. All protestations about "precedent" aside, Kavanaugh was clearly picked by Trump and his Federalist Society advisers to be the fifth vote on the court to overturn Roe v. Wade -- and quite likely to start chipping away at contraception access as well.

Given that context, it's clear enough that no matter what the facts are behind this disturbing anecdote, Kavanaugh and his fellow Republicans are hostile to women's sexual and reproductive autonomy and, at best, indifferent to the suffering they inflict on women as they fight to uphold male dominance.

What cannot be denied is that Kavanaugh eagerly accepted a Supreme Court nomination from a president who is on tape openly bragging about violating women. Trump's supposed "locker-room talk" about how he likes to "grab them by the pussy" was backed up by accusations from 16 separate women of harassment, forced kissing and outright assault. That's not even counting the accusation made during a deposition by Trump's former wife, Ivana Trump, who alleged to lawyers that he had raped her. She later backed off the word "rape," but did not recant the specific details of an incident that sounds like a violent assault.

While there was a great deal of attention paid during Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings to whether he had known about the harassment allegations against his former boss, Judge Alex Kozinski, the issue of why he accepted a job from a man who is on tape bragging about sexual assault was largely ignored. Sen. Cory Booker did mention it, noting that Trump "bragged about sexually assaulting women" and asking Kavanaugh if he had "the greatest respect" for Trump.

"You don't hear judges commenting on political [matters]," Kavanaugh replied. After that, the question of how he felt about Trump admitting to what sounds like a sex crime was dropped.

But the issue of Kavanaugh's indifference to the suffering of women and girls was brought up again on the last day of the hearings, when Rochelle Garza, a family lawyer who has represented minors being held in immigrant detention facilities, told the story of one of her clients, a 17-year-old girl who had escaped from abusive parents in Central America.

The Trump administration had appointed an anti-choice fanatic, Scott Lloyd, to head the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This is a man so obsessed with the reproductive capacities of underage girls that he reportedly demanded his staff provide him a weekly list of the pregnant girls he's holding in captivity who have requested abortion, with details about their pregnancies. Under Lloyd's leadership, Garza said, her client was subject to sexual shaming and bullying.

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According to Garza, Jane Doe was forced into multiple medically unnecessary sonograms and then forced into contact with anti-choice activists who shamed her by praying at her. Worker at the facility "told Jane’s mother that she was pregnant and wanted an abortion" even though Jane told officials that, when her sister had earlier become pregnant, "her parents had beaten her with firewood and cables to the point that her sister miscarried, and Jane was also beaten when she tried to intervene." Jane was denied exercise, taunted with requests to name the "baby" she wasn't going to have, and allegedly had someone assigned to follow her around all day for unclear reasons.

Despite all this, and with no legitimate legal reason, Kavanaugh created more delays for Jane's abortion, driving her pregnancy into the second trimester, when abortion becomes a more painful and complicated procedure.

Sometimes the discussion of these issues can sound abstract, with lofty discourse about "unenumerated rights" and "bodily autonomy" and "historical precedent." But the details of Jane Doe's story are a sobering reminder of what's really at stake. The Trump administration is imprisoning innocent girls — many of whom have been subject to rape and child abuse — while heaping more abuse on them and sometimes attempting to force childbirth on them. And while Kavanaugh never laid hands on Jane Doe, he knowingly contributed to this human rights violation with his gavel.

With reports coming out that the Trump administration is holding more than five times as many minors in detention as it was this time last year, it's safe to say the number of teen girls that could be subject to this kind of invasive and abusive treatment is also far higher.

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READ MORE: Pennsylvania lawmaker on his crusade against pedophile priests — and his past as an abuse survivor

Despite the massive efforts to make Kavanaugh seem like a good guy and a friend to women, the mask slipped occasionally during the hearing, most notably when he used the phrase "abortion-inducing drugs" to describe contraceptive medication. That term is unscientific nonsense created by far-right activists to draw a false analogy between abortion and contraception that may stick in the public mind. Anti-choicers will twist themselves into pretzels trying to defend the use of this phrase, what's really going on is simple enough. In conservative lingo, "abortion" is a misogynist code word meant to insinuate that a woman is sexually promiscuous — and the net is particularly large in this case, since more than 99 percent of women who have ever had sexual intercourse have used contraception.

During his testimony last Friday, former Richard Nixon lawyer-turned-whistleblower John Dean reminded the Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court. Dean noted that a "definitive study of this controversy was undertaken in 1994 by journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson," who found "that the preponderance of evidence supported Anita Hill’s claims."

Unsurprisingly, Thomas has since been a reliable vote against a woman's right to bodily autonomy, voting consistently against women's rights in every case that has addressed abortion and contraception before the Supreme Court. There is a common theme here: Treating women like objects, whose desire to make their own decisions about their own bodies is viewed as irrelevant. Instead, women are harassed and abused and shamed for trying to exert autonomy, and male efforts to control and misuse women are pointedly ignored.

About an hour after the initial report of the accusations against Kavanaugh, Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley released a letter signed by 65 women who knew Kavanaugh in high school, claiming, "For the entire time we have known Brett Kavanaugh, he has behaved honorably and treated women with respect."

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The timing of that letter is telling, as it's impossible to believe that it was drafted in response to the New Yorker story. Instead was almost certainly something Grassley had in his back pocket, in anticipation of this accusation. The cynicism at work here lays bare how little Republicans actually care about the issue of women's rights and women's safety. Instead, the goal is clearly to provide some talking points for Fox News to use as deflection. Real engagement with these serious accusations is to be avoided at all costs, because women's humanity isn't important to Republicans. It's just a minor obstacle to be overcome while consolidating power.

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Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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