Survivors, advocates and experts came together today in Washington, D.C. to speak out in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has publicly alleged that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. In remarks delivered at the National Press Club, they demanded a fair and unbiased investigation into Blasey Ford’s grave charges against the D.C. Circuit Judge, laid out recommendations for a trauma-informed path forward and sent a clear message of support to the survivors around the world watching as serious matters like sexual assault, rape and trauma are reduced to political talking points.
“We are holding this press conference to highlight the work of experts who can inform and enlighten the public discussion on Dr. Blasey Ford’s sexual violence allegations against Judge Kavanaugh,” Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority and Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms., said in her opening remarks. “In the 27 years since Anita Hill, much progress has been made in understanding sexual harassment, assault and violence—yet the national conversation surrounding Dr. Blasey Ford is still filled, after all these years, with hurtful myths that are traumatizing to survivors of sexual assault and damaging to the movement for justice.”
“At the core of this hurtful rhetoric,” Smeal said in a statement, “is the Senate Judiciary Committee, which scheduled a hasty hearing for Dr. Blasey Ford with no experts, no witnesses and no investigation. For years, numerous organizations and scholars have developed best practices to conduct trauma-informed investigations that are sensitive to the survivor, fair and thorough. It is shocking for the Senate majority to ignore decades of progress and treat these allegations with even less regard than Anita Hill received, which was also inadequate and unfair. They say there is no time. But there is plenty of time when we’re talking about a lifetime appointment to this nation’s highest court and ensuring that our judicial leaders hold themselves to the gold standard when it comes to violence against women.”
Smeal’s remarks set the stage for similar declarations from leading anti-violence advocates, all of whom highlighted the injustices of how the committee tasked with deciding whether or not to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor have responded to Blasey Ford’s allegations.
“Sexual assault is not a Democratic issue and it’s not a Republican issue. It’s a human issue. And right now, we are badly in need of some humanity,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We’ve made progress in many ways—with laws, protections, support and resources for survivors—but we have a long way to go in terms of attitudes and assumptions.”
Gandy urged Senators to take Blasey Ford’s allegations seriously and treat them with the magnitude they deserve, calling for “an actual investigation, not just a hearing.” Her statement echoed the same demands being made by Blasey Ford herself through her lawyers; although the Senate Judiciary Committee had delayed an initial vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination this week and scheduled Blasey Ford to testify publicly on Monday, she is refusing to do so until after an FBI investigation is conducted and closed.
“Think about the survivors who are watching this process unfold,” Gandy said in a message to the Senators on that committee. “They are thinking: How would I be treated? What will happen to me if I come forward? Our daughters are watching and wondering, is this what would happen to me if I was assaulted and I told someone? Would it be any wonder if they didn’t come forward? Countless survivors—and their families, their friends, their advocates—are watching the Senate to see what kind of tone they set. And so far, it’s not a good one.”
Indira Henard, the Executive Director of DC Rape Crisis Center, the oldest rape crisis center in the country, also spoke to the impact Blasey Ford’s treatment was having on survivors across the country.
“The national conversation on sexual violence that is happening across the country has trickled down to have impacts at the local levels in ways that we have never seen before,” Henard said, noting that DCRCC has seen a 15 percent uptick in hotline calls in the wake of the #MeToo movement. “This national conversation has ignited an unprecedented amount of sexual assault disclosures across the country, and in recent days we have seen Dr. Ford boldly and bravely usher her voice into this conversation. What we must remember is that she did not have to tell her story. We have to remember that survivors of sexual violence do not owe their story to anyone.”
Henard, who was also representing the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, highlighted in those remarks the ways in which Blasey Ford has been forced into being a public—and scorned—trauma survivor. Blasey Ford had initially tried to extensively protect her identity, coming forward anonymously and under the conditions that her privacy be respected. As Kavanaugh’s nomination began to reach a tipping point, however, she decided to come forward to The Washington Post after Senator Dianne Feinstein referred her case to the FBI.
Some lawmakers and other supporters of Kavanaugh’s nomination have criticized Blasey Ford for coming forward in the eleventh hour of his hearings before the Senate. In her remarks, Henard explored the reasons survivors may not immediately come forward, including the ways the brain processes traumatic memories—and asserted that no matter what the reason for a survivor’s silence or their decision to speak out, “it is not our job to dissect Dr. Ford’s story, or any survivor’s story of sexual violence.” Instead, she said, “it is our job to believe them. hear, it is our job to support them, it is our job to hold those responsible accountable.”
“The burden of proof should not be on survivors of sexual violence,” Henard added. “Dr. Blasey Ford should not be on trial. What we are seeing in the treatment of Dr. Ford is a travesty. The world is watching. Young girls, survivors, are watching the way Dr. Ford is being treated.”
Gandy had also touched on the way Blasey Ford’s identity and story came to light in the public sphere, noting that lawmakers like Feinstein who had attempted to protect her anonymity have faced public criticism. “We have to foster an environment where survivors feel safe, supported, heard and understood,” Gandy asserted, “and where charges of sexual assault or domestic violence are fully and properly investigated, even when the timing is inconvenient. In this very public arena, we have to get this right. What the Senate does will send a message to survivors everywhere.”
Henard echoed the sentiment. “What we decide in this moment will undeniably be linked into the soul of America,” she said. “The time is always right to do what is right. The time is now.”
Lisalyn Jacobs, J.D., an expert on sexual violence, spoke about bearing witness when was just one year out of law school to Anita Hill’s testimony alleging she was sexually harassed by now-Justice and then-nominee Clarence Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’ve now been practicing for some 28 years, and while some things have changed,” Jacobs explained, “some things have not.”
Jacobs, who represented four groups at the press conference focused on sexual violence and its intersections with issues of racial justice, such Black Women’s Blueprint, drew attention in her remarks to the ways in which women of color and Native women remain at greatest risk of violence but are discouraged from reporting because their claims are not seen as “credible,” and because doing so may have negative impacts on perceptions of their own community. Harkening back to the testimony of Anita Hill, she demanded better for Blasey Ford. (So has Hill herself.)
“We are here to say that we stand with her, we believe her—and to demand a fair process going forward,” Jacobs declared. “Now, as in 1991, those in control of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate itself are determined to rush through a Supreme Court candidate with inadequate time to examine serious and credible charges of sexual violence—28 years ago, sexual harassment—with no consideration and no respect for the traumatic impact on the witness, and, in this instance, with insufficient time for the FBI to talk to all of the witnesses in advance of a hearing.”
Jacobs also characterized the call for a full FBI investigation as a matter of upholding the integrity of the congressional body’s task at hand to vet nominees for the Court—closing her remarks with a quote from Fannie Lou Hamer, a historic organizer and agitator, and an impassioned call for justice to be served.
“Fannie Lou once said: ‘As women,’ and men, ‘we have a job to do. We’ve got to bring in justice where there has been so much injustice,'” Jacobs said. “Justice demands a process that treats Dr. Ford far better than the derision, scorn and humiliation to which Professor Hill was subjected. She is not on trial. Justice demands that we respect that Dr. Ford is a victim of trauma, and that the Senate Judiciary Committee hear from experts on the lasting impact of trauma on survivors. Justice demands that the hearing process be paused while the FBI re-opens its investigation and talks to any witnesses with knowledge that bears on the information Dr. Ford has provided. And finally, justice demands that the American people have confidence not only in the integrity of those that sit on the highest court, but those responsible for giving their advice and consent to the president, and the process by which they give it.”
Both Jacobs and Roger Canaff, an anti-violence advocate and former Special Victims Assistant District Attorney, illustrated in their statements how clarifying an FBI investigation could be in the aftermath of Blasey Ford’s allegations—and worked to counter the misperception in the media and among lawmakers that it’s too late for an investigation, and that launching one wouldn’t lead to any more insight into her claims.
“I worked for the Justice Department in the mid-nineties, including work on judicial nominations,” Jacobs explained. “I handled a candidate about whom several concerns were raised about sexual harassment.” According to Jacobs, in that situations years before, the privacy of those who disclosed was protected, and FBI investigations led to further critical insight into that nominee. “The FBI,” she added, circling back to Dr. Blasey Ford’s case, “should be dispatched without delay.”
Canaff, who worked as a prosecutor in various jurisdictions over many years focused on sexual violence cases before his time as an ADA, also knows from professional experience how powerful an investigation could be—and how massive its impact on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“I, too, support Dr. Ford. I, too, believe her. I have no reason not to. But even if I wasn’t willing to make that statement,” Canaff explained, “what I can say with full confidence is that further details, further corroboration, further truth surrounding what I do believe Dr. Ford endured—these things are entirely possible to gleam. They are entirely possible to discover and figure out.”
Canaff spoke frankly about his frustration with claims that an FBI investigation wouldn’t change anything in the Kavanaugh case. “Allegations of sexual violence, even very, very old ones, can still be investigated,” he explained. “Timelines can be narrowed, facts can be determined. It is not at all impossible.” He referenced his own experience working on cases that dated back years, and how he was able to sometimes resolve those cases by working with “talented investigators—who are compassionate, who are competent, who are trauma-informed.”
Moving forward not just with a hearing and an investigation, but with a trauma-informed process, was a critical component of the demands made by those convened at the press conference. Kiersten Stewart, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Futures Without Violence, laid out recommendations during her statements for what that process would look like for Blasey Ford—calling on lawmakers to consult with experts in sexual violence and trauma, conduct a comprehensive bi-partisan investigation into her allegations and allow her as much input and information as possible to ensure a comfortable and supportive environment for her moving forward.
“To Dr. Ford: We believe you. We stand with you. What is happening to you is wrong,” Stewart declared, “and we demand that the Senate Judiciary Committee give you a full, unbiased, trauma-informed investigation. It is what you deserve. It is what every victim of sexual violence deserves.”
Stewart also urged those involved in the Kavanaugh hearings to repudiate attacks against Blasey Ford and refrain from stereotypical victim-blaming assumptions in what she said could be days, weeks and maybe months to come during a full investigation. She called out the Judiciary Committee for, thus far, failing to do so—and noted that attacks on Blasey Ford in the last week have also undoubtedly been toxic to survivors watching the process unfold in the media. “We want senators and the nation to understand: this is much bigger than a Supreme Court nominee. It is about that 15-year-old girl, locked in a bathroom, crying and shaking with fear. This is not her fault.”
“This moment is a test: Do we believe victims of sexual violence or not?” Stewart asked. “And to the men controlling this process,” she added, “this is your test as well. Do you respect women or don’t you? And if you do, as you say, then you need to show it—with your actions, now, when it matters. Not in the moments when it’s easy, but in the moments when it’s hard. No fair investigation starts or ends with demonizing a survivor.”
Toni Van Pelt, President of the National Organization for Women, upped the ante—demanding not just Congressional support for survivors, but for direct protection for Blasey Ford and her family, who have been forced to relocate since she came forward. “We are calling on Federal Marshalls,” Van Pelt explained, “telling them they must investigate these threats against her.”
Van Pelt also took time to connect the dots between the feminist fight for Blasey Ford and the other ways in which women have clearly demonstrated their opposition to Kavanaugh—a far-right nominee with a history of sexist rulings that hurt women’s health and rights. In doing so, she was able to then draw parallels between not just the treatment of Blasey Ford and that of Hill in 1991, but the persistent control by men of the Supreme Court nomination and approval process.
“Only Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch remain on the Judiciary Committee that unfairly interrogated Anita Hill with malice and spitefulness, but today, the white men on the dais seem intent on creating another Anita Hill moment—with Dr. Blasey as their target,” Van Pelt said. “Dr. Blasey made a brave decision to come forward. The disrespect and demeaning of women must end now. Enough is enough.”
You can watch the press conference in its entirety below. To be notified in real-time when events like this are being recorded, follow the Feminist Majority Foundation on Facebook.
You can call your Senators at (202) 224-3121 to urge them to take action to stop the Kavanaugh nomination hearings and launch an investigation into Blasey Ford’s allegations.
Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. and Contributing Editor and Co-Founder of Argot Magazine; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, where she was previously Community Director and Feminism Editor. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.