Breaking the Senate Silence: Women's Voices

By Jamie Stiehm

October 10, 2018 5 min read

Exactly a month before the Nov. 6 election, the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, 50 to 48.

This was an extraordinary roll-call vote, pierced by shouts and wails of women up in the gallery. Cries of "Shame!" and "I believe survivors!" broke the stately silence. They made sure senators knew that sexual assault accusations against Kavanaugh would not rest easy, even if they were buried in that chamber.

On another October day in 1991, Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the Senate to serve on the high Court, despite Anita Hill's testimony that he sexually harassed her in the workplace. The vote was 52-48.

That's how far we've come. Zero distance. That kills me.

The #MeToo movement has not moved the rock of government at the highest level. The sad story Christine Blasey Ford told the Judiciary Committee of her attack was a noble effort — and failure. Hill was also an indelible witness who impressed listeners. There were two women in the Senate back then. Now there are more than 20, mostly Democrats.

These smoldering scenes, 27 years apart, were the two closest Court confirmation margins in modern history. Both men under scrutiny, Thomas and Kavanaugh, pitched a fit and berated the committee in an unbecoming way. Thomas called his hearing "a high-tech lynching." Kavanaugh suggested there was revenge afoot "on behalf of the Clintons." But it worked for them.

The slight FBI report on the alleged assault did not change any minds.

So I went to the Capitol Saturday afternoon to witness the agony written on many faces. I saw scores of protestors getting arrested on the steps of the Capitol. Later, women peacefully stormed the Supreme Court steps, raining down their sound and fury. There was a thrill in their defiant chants. Good girls no more.

They echoed the woman suffrage parades and vigils of 100 years ago, outside Woodrow Wilson's White House. Alice Paul, the leader, burned some of Wilson's speeches on Pennsylvania Avenue, outside his gates. (A proud Princeton man, Wilson was the last president to write his own speeches.) Nonviolent protestors were arrested then, early and often, jailed for the vote. Their bravery inspired others.

Why didn't the Democratic women senators do more on the floor? That's what filibusters are for.

It's a rare day in the Senate when such anger, the noise of democracy, comes inside from the outside. I saw most senators looking taut and grim. The Republican leaders looked set to seize the slim victory, and Vice President Mike Pence sat like a cat in the chair presiding with his silver head of hair.

One thing that strikes you, seeing them all at their desks, is how many aged white men are in the Senate. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairs the Judiciary Committee with a farmer's rough hand at 85. Snowy Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of the three "Macbeth witches" who tormented Hill, still sits on that same committee 27 years later. He is retiring, now in his 80s.

The assistant Democratic leader, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., stood to say he had never seen a public reaction like this.

After the 50-48 votes were counted, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had his moment. With a flat gaze straight ahead, he declared it a "day of reckoning." He mentioned his Kentucky role model, Henry Clay, known as the 19th-century great compromiser. Funny, as the shrewd McConnell never compromises. He says he plays "the long game."

He praised Republican Susan Collins' 45-minute speech — announcing her support for Kavanaugh — as "historic." No, it was not. The schoolmarmish Maine senator gave a bland address, giving colleagues political cover. She's no Henry Clay or, closer to home, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.

Then his deputy leader, John Cornyn of Texas, let the other side know what they were in for. He called the harrowing confirmation a "cruel episode." Then this: Democrats and protestors opposing Kavanaugh were a "mob."

That ugly word is from crowing Donald Trump, the man in the White House. As president, he won by a narrow margin, like his Supreme Court nominee. But as long as he wins, that's all that counts.

Come November, Trump may not crow so loud.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.

Image courtesy of Phil Roeder 

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