When Christine Blasey Ford took the oath to testify about her alleged assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she was met by the faces of mostly male senators. What she couldn’t see was the women around the country, themselves sexual abuse survivors, cheering her on.
“I must admit that I wish I could have been there sitting behind her,” said Jessica Leeds, one of the first women to publicly accuse President Donald Trump of sexual assault. “I would love to have given her a hug and told her that it’s going to be alright and that she’s on the right side of the issue.”
During the extraordinary hearing, Ford told the lawmakers that Kavanaugh had pinned her down, tried to tear off her clothing and covered her mouth to stifle her screams at a boozy high-school get-together in the 1980s—claims he denies.
Her powerful testimony, the tense atmosphere and the high stakes drew comparisons to the 1991 hearing where Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
But while Hill’s testimony led to an uprising by women, Ford’s came in the midst of one. Over the last three years, hundreds of women have shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment, buoyed by the #MeToo movement or—in Leeds’s case—the fear that their abuser would become president. And on Thursday, many of those women were watching Ford.
“When I turned it on and I was listening to her, I just started to cry,” said Brittny McCarthy, who accused director James Toback of sexual assault last year. McCarthy was one of more than 200 women to level accusations against the filmmaker, only to hear him dismiss them as “lying cocksuckers.”
McCarthy said she wasn’t planning on watching the hearing on Thursday, but turned it on when a friend texted to say it had made him think of her. As the hearing progressed, McCarthy felt her anxiety change to pride—in Ford, and the women who had spoken out before her.
“I definitely believe that this story got to be told because [Ford] knew that there were women who came before her, who were standing with her, and were going to come behind her when she spoke up,” McCarthy said. “I’m really glad she spoke up, because it’s the only way we’re going to break the silence.”
Other prominent accusers said they were angry with how little had changed. Victoria Valentino, who came forward with allegations against Bill Cosby in 2014 and finally watched the comedian walk out of a courtroom in handcuffs earlier this week, said she felt like she was seeing history repeat itself when she heard Republican Senator Orrin Hatch had called Ford an “attractive” and “pleasing” witness.
“So once again, we’re being categorized by our looks and our lady-like demeanor,” she said. “‘Attractive and pleasing.’ I mean it’s almost an insult.”
Valentino, 75, said Hatch’s comments during a break in the hearing struck a particular chord with her because, as a former Playboy model, “everyone just gauged me by my bra size.”
The comments of another Republican senator struck Samantha Holvey, a former Miss USA contestant who publicly accused Trump of walking in on the teenage contestants while they were changing. In 2016, Holvey wrote to her senator – future Trump golfing buddy Lindsey Graham – urging him to investigate then-candidate Trump’s sexual misconduct. The senator declined.
Last week, Graham told reporters he would be voting to confirm Kavanaugh no matter what Ford said. During the hearing, he delivered a full-throated defense of the nominee, calling the hearing “the most despicable thing i have seen in my time in politics.”
"I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through." Graham told Kavanaugh. "I hope the American people can see through this sham."
Holvey said the comments did not surprise her, but still made her angry.
“It’s bad enough that this happened with Anita Hill,” Holvey said. “To still, in 2018, say we don’t care about women, it’s just so disheartening. And then they wonder why women don’t come forward.”
Ford herself addressed the question of why she hadn’t come forward sooner on Thursday, saying she had feared retaliation – and still did. In the weeks following her accusations, she said, her “greatest fears have been realized.” Her email has been hacked, her family threatened, and her personal live dissected in the media.
Leeds recalled how her children had been terrified that the same thing would happen to her after she first spoke out against Trump. Her adult daughter whisked her away to her home in Pennsylvania, fearing the elderly businesswoman would be attacked at her home in New York. For a time, she said, the online comments were alarming. But she wanted Ford to know that eventually, it was all worth it.
“To be honest with you, 100 percent of the people who came up to me in Pennsylvania, here in New York, or wherever I’ve travelled, have been positive,” she said. “They all say thank you, and you’re so brave.”