The Cruelty of a Woman's 'Civic Duty'


Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sat before a group of men on Thursday and testified about a moment she’s had to relive since she was 15 years old. Among the many monstrous moments in Thursday’s confirmation hearing, one chord that struck loudly was the reiteration that Ford is performing a civic duty. In a written testimony, which was released the day before and which Ford read in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she explained what brought her there.

“I am here today not because I want to be,” she stated. “I am here today because I believe it is my civic duty.” She continued, recounting the dread she felt at the party where she says Brett Kavanaugh groped her on a bed and sexually assaulted her: “I believed he was going to rape me.”

Reliving your trauma as public service feels altogether tragic, unfair, and most of all familiar. That the burden of this so-called civic duty has fallen on the survivor is unsurprising. During the early part of the hearing, Senator Chris Coons described Ford’s testimony as a service in the cruelest sense. “You chose to come forward with very serious and relevant information about a nominee for a lifetime position on our Supreme Court,” Coons said. “You didn’t have to, and I know you’ve done it at great personal cost. This is a public service and I want you to know I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear from you directly today.”

Ford’s testimony is now imprinted beyond this specific moment in time. Her anxiety will forever ring familiar to many women, as will the sense of being overcome with an urgent sense of obligation. And it’s the same dreadful feeling: why is this a woman’s duty?

Rather than admissible evidence of Kavanaugh’s inability to serve the public himself as a Supreme Court justice, Ford’s story has transformed into a cruel trial (and yes, it’s a trial). Senator Richard Blumenthal corroborated the idea of service during the hearing. “You have inspired and given courage to women to come forward,” Blumenthal said. “You have inspired and you have enlightened men in America to listen respectfully… and that is a profound public service.”

For a survivor of sexual assault to be subject to the spectacle of a trial in front of powerful men should not be a civic duty, and yet this is the state of affairs. Ford is faced with a sense of duty that works in congress with disillusion. It’s a duty that necessitates reassurance. “I believe you. And I believe many Americans believe you,” Senator Kamala Harris told Ford, as her voice shook throughout her testimony.

This emotional onus is especially obscene when measured next to the civic duties of men. Kavanaugh’s public service on display doesn’t benefit the public in effect; it involves preserving his good name—not reliving past trauma. For Lindsey Graham, it’s about the preservation of the party.

The hope of any woman who chooses to speak in public about her sexual trauma is that out of the mess maybe some goodwill will be done. For Ford, there’s a belief that her testimony will lead to Kavanaugh being rejected as a choice to serve in the highest court in the United States. Ford testified that for years she was “too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details.” After Kavanaugh’s name surfaced on the short list of Supreme Court nominees, she said, “I thought it was my civic duty to relay the information I had about Mr. Kavanaugh’s conduct so that those considering his potential nomination would know about the assault.”

The point of this sort of public service—the remembrance and presentation of what you’d rather forget—is that there’s nothing to be gained. Reiterating the sense of service underscores that none of this is of benefit to Ford, despite the Republicans’ insistence that the timing of her allegation is opportunistic. What’s most dejecting is the feeling that her public service may not be enough to counter all the men in government who have not been performing theirs.

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