The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on Thursday from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. For many Americans, the hearing will echo Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991, and it comes as the #MeToo movement continues to reverberate from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.
Like Hill, Ford will face a Senate Judiciary Committee dominated by men. Seventeen of its 21 members are men, and all 11 Republicans on the committee are men. Six of those 11 Republicans voted against the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
Some Republicans are worried that any attack on Ford’s character will be viewed as an attack on all women. Surely this is one reason Republicans on the committee have hired a female attorney to question both Ford and Kavanaugh.
Their fears are well-founded. According to our research, the committee’s gender disparity will send a powerful signal. The signal will not only concern whether Republicans respect women, but whether the committee can be trusted at all.
Because political scientists link fairness and trust to legitimacy, we concluded that an absence of women made the process appear illegitimate.
In an experiment conducted in 2016, we asked a nationally representative group of 1,000 Americans to read a fictitious news story about a state legislative committee determining sexual harassment penalties.
The stories that our respondents read were nearly identical, but with key variations. One version said the committee was composed only of men. Another said the committee was half men, half women. At the end, we asked respondents to evaluate the committee and its decision.
Respondents who were told the committee was all men were more likely to say that the outcome should be overturned. They were also more likely to say that the committee’s process was unfair, and that the committee could not be trusted to make the right decision.
The all-male committee was judged more harshly across the board: by men, women, Republicans and Democrats. Because political scientists link fairness and trust to legitimacy, we concluded that an absence of women made the process appear illegitimate.
We also varied the committee’s decision. Some people read that the committee lowered penalties for sexual harassment, while others read that it raised them. The decision to reduce penalties was viewed as fairer when it was made by men and women than when it was made by only men. This view too was held by both Republicans and Democrats.
We concluded that the decision to repeal penalties for sexual harassment, when made by men only, was considered especially illegitimate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists that Kavanaugh will be appointed, whatever Ford’s testimony. Although the specifics are different, our research suggests that Republican efforts to jam Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court will be widely viewed as suspect.
In addition, Republicans would risk inviting even greater losses in the midterm election than they are reportedly facing already. Outrage over the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interrogation of Anita Hill transformed 1992 into the so-called Year of the Woman. Eleven women ran for the Senate and 106 women ran for the House.
In 2018, a record number of Democratic women filed for candidacy, with 262 still in the running for the House or the Senate. Over the summer, polls showed declining support for the GOP among white women.
If Ford’s testimony and treatment bring more women to the polls in November, Republicans may well lose their congressional majority.
Although the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing is unlikely to alienate the Republican base, pushing Kavanaugh through Congress would ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory.
The GOP’s legitimacy problem will persist until Republicans elect more women. There are currently only six Republican women senators and 29 women representatives. The Democrats have 17 women in the Senate and 78 women in the House.
Among the Republican Party’s core supporters, there is little energy for electing more women. The current surge of women candidates is limited to the Democratic Party. The Pew Research Center reported this week that only 33% of Republican voters think there are not enough women in public office, compared with 79% of Democratic voters.
The representation of women is more than a matter of principle. When it comes to who is in office and what they decide, citizens want more women, and they especially want women when women’s rights are at stake.
Talk of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing has already generated a new wave of outrage over sexual harassment and sexual assault. For many Americans, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s gender disparity will mean any confirmation of Kavanaugh cannot be trusted.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is assistant professor of politics at Occidental College. Diana Z. O’Brien is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. Amanda Clayton is an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.