Teaching about Gender Identities in the Context of the Kavanaugh Controversy

I am an educator whose work includes teaching about gender identities in action. I am struggling with how to help my students right now, and in the days ahead, as they respond to the ongoing controversy around Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and multiple women’s charges against him.

The impact of this intense conflict—played out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, but also in the context of a deeply divided national political landscape—is going to weigh heavily on the lives of young people across America for years to come.

What, then, are my best paths for teaching this topic in the days ahead? As a teacher, even amid such efforts at constructive intervention as Title IX, I have several times had young people confide in me and seek my help after a sexual assault. I can think of no time when such experiences have left the victims unscathed (even when they become strong survivors). As a teacher, I have seen ways that our society promotes highly constraining (even “toxic”) versions of masculinity and femininity, even during a supposedly post-feminist era. For example, I have shuddered at stories of how dangerous levels of alcohol use are promoted on college campuses, rendering some fraternity communities that could be focused on positive male bonding and building constructive social networks for their members instead lead them into danger zones that can haze young men to death and promote sexual assaults of women. Many a feminist scholar has recoiled in horror from the efforts of Brock Turner’s father to redirect attention from his son’s crime to the culture of alcohol contributing to it. But as the child of an alcoholic who became a terrifying different person when inebriated, I know the toxic force excessive drinking can exercise. And I also know it’s often impossible to convince a heavy drinker, the next morning, of horrible acts committed the night before.

For me, as a teacher of young people, the Kavanaugh confirmation saga won’t end with the “final” vote. I am just beginning to identify its “teachable moments” in terms that I hope may be constructive, even as I struggle with how to help students navigate through their raw emotions around the conflict right now.

So, I watched the Senate hearings yesterday.

I certainly watched for a number of reasons, including hope, as a woman citizen, that I would see striking differences between this watershed event and another that has been repeatedly invoked in recent weeks—the 1991 Senate judiciary committee’s handling of testimony from Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in connection with his nomination to the Court.

But, mainly, I watched because I am a teacher. And I know many of my students will be thinking through the particular event and its ongoing aftermath in the days ahead.

Besides viewing the hearings themselves, I also watched several news organizations’ post-session conversations on into the night. My TV’s ability to record multiple channels simultaneously enabled me to tap into multiple commentaries afterwards—an exhausting enterprise, though certainly not as fraught and emotionally intense as for Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, and the committee members. I watched multiple commentators, and read many of the late-night digital stories that were already showing up online, in part because I know that the narratives created around the event will also have a powerful impact on how it is remembered. Already, less than 24 hours later, there were accounts contrasting Blasey Ford’s highly gendered efforts to ease others’ feelings, to call for collaboration even as she fought to contain her terror and pain, with Kavanaugh’s visibly intense anger and his accusative tone, a stance which the led a Washington Post opinion essay to assess him as unfit for the highest court. For students in one of my classes right now, in the midst of preparing presentations on how performances in contemporary texts such as TV shows and films reflect and reinforce expectations for “norming” our gendered identities, I know the two different testimony approaches will be compelling sites of analysis.

They’ll also be difficult (likely impossible) to unpack from a stance free of bias, as feminist standpoint theory would always acknowledge, but is seemingly more evident these days.

Divided Views Reverberating in Twitterland

Politics dividing the national community will complicate our interpretations of the gender dynamics at work throughout this confirmation controversy, even as we try to step outside of our own perspectives toward a more critical stance. Reading through twitter late last night and this morning, I couldn’t avoid seeing the intensity of the divide, echoing the combative voices of some senators during the hearing.

Here’s one twitter comment:

Brett Kavanaugh is not backing down, he’s not curling up in the corner, he’s not playing dead. He’s coming out swinging and knocking these quacks out of the park! Get em, Brett! #istandwithBrett

VERSUS another:

Kavanaugh is not crying because he has any sense of remorse or because empathizes with Dr. Ford. He’s crying because his lifetime of male/elitist entitlement is being challenged. He’s crying because the ugly truth about him and his behavior has been laid bare for the world to see.

AND this satirical mini-parody:

I can’t stand half of you. I love beer. The clintons are conspiring against me. I *love* beer. I don’t have a drinking problem, you have a drinking problem. If you don’t hire me, I’ll never stop trying to get my revenge.

– An actual job interview that happened on live TV today

VERSUS this salute to the nominee:

If he does not get confirmed, I want to volunteer for the Brett Kavanaugh 2024 Presidential campaign!

One post spoke through a juxtaposition of anger images. Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, and Brett Kavanaugh: faces contorted, mouths wide open, yelling at enemies.

Together, they highlighted what several TV commentators had also noted: that Kavanaugh had left behind his Bush political roots for a far more Trump-like performance that some viewed as a compelling call to “the base,” others as a reminder of patriarchal self-righteousness. I tagged that tweet for future discussions of visual rhetoric. But when I went back to review the post this morning, I wondered: should I try to use such images to teach about gendered performance of anger as a strategy?  Would it be more fair—or merely reductive and oversimplifying–to juxtapose these images with parallel expressions of anger—from women deeply involved as actors in this ongoing Trumpian cultural context?

What should I say about, and what can my students productively learn from, comparisons between the anger expressed—and cast in terms of righteous indignation–by committee Chairman Grassley at not having received Blasey Ford’s letter immediately and Ranking Member Diane Feinstein’s repeated tense assertions of her commitment to honor, fully, a request for confidentiality as well as her insistence that her staff did not leak the letter?

Revisiting History’s Living Reach

In 1991, like yesterday, I also watched the entire Judiciary Committee proceedings involving Professor Hill and Justice Thomas. Beyond trying to navigate my personal emotions then, I remember being struck, again and again, by the diametrically opposed reactions to the two principal figures’ accounts to the Senate that I heard in the days immediately afterwards. The anger and frustration on both sides was palpable. Those who believed Hill voiced horror at the all-white-men’s committee seeming to convey unfeeling, uninformed, and unresponsive indifference to her experiences. From that standpoint,  the committee members’ failure to recognize Hill’s testimony as a notable marker of Thomas’s unsuitability for the highest court also signaled a broader blindness in the culture at large. Those who affiliated with Thomas’s vehement response, in contrast, could see no value in Hill’s coming forward. Indeed, echoing Thomas’s own words, they viewed it as a “high-tech lynching,” a phrase that has eerie echoes in characterizations of some (supposed?) “witch hunts” going on today.

Over the years since 1991, Thomas, though he sits on the Court, has been far less vocal during oral arguments than his colleagues on the bench. Is that choice a result of his contentious confirmation process or merely a reflection of the path he would have chosen anyway, based on personal background or temperament? Having watched Kavanaugh’s opening statement yesterday, it is hard, right now, to imagine him speaking in a measured, judicious voice over some of the cases he is very likely to hear.

As Time magazine’s reflective story by Molly Ball and Tessa Berenson on “Brett Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Fight” noted:

Whoever ends up on the court, it will be called on to adjudicate the very issues–gender equality, due process and justice for victims of sexual assault–that turned the nomination of their latest potential member into a political circus.

That same article observed:

The court is a fragile mix of personal relationships and towering ideals. It cannot avoid being damaged by the mounting political fight, whether in the ability of its nine members to reach consensus on some of the hardest issues the country faces, or in the public trust in the result.

I had the inspiring benefit of observing an oral argument at the Supreme Court before the death of Justice Scalia and the resignation of Justice Kennedy. I left that day excited by the intellectual energy evident in the exchanges between the lawyer presenting a case and the Justices—but also by the clear respect evident among the Justices themselves. I had flashbacks to that occasion during the Senate hearings yesterday and wished there could be, in that committee and throughout Congress, the kind of mutual admiration consciously cultivated by Justices Ginsburg and Scalia in their friendship of many years, a friendship that crossed not only across genders but also across political persuasions.

Public trust in the court is already very fragile. Can we marshal the kind of patience Ruth Bader Ginsburg used, as seen in a recent CNN documentary, RBG, to slowly, purposefully, use language in a series of individual Court cases as a measured process ultimately establishing important legal precedents associated with legal rights related to gender? Is there a similar pathway available to us, now, to use language—like the patient, collaborative, attentive, caring voice Christine Blasey Ford offered yesterday—to recover and reconstruct a shared commitment to civic work in American society, across current divides?

I honestly don’t know. But teachers and students will need to try.

7 thoughts on “Teaching about Gender Identities in the Context of the Kavanaugh Controversy

  1. Melissa D. Keith, PhD

    Thank you for bravely taking on the difficult task of discussing how to teach this historic event of great magnitude. A New York Times Opinion piece by a University of Oregon’s Philosophy Professor, Bonnie Mann, Ph.D., guided me enormously in thinking about how to approach this in the classroom. She offers the tools and brilliant concepts for how to contextualize the conversation, making it a highly intellectual discussion while simultaneously allowing for personal sharing by survivors. I think it is important not to structure the discussion as a debate, which, in my university teaching experience, might quickly devolve with a topic as contentious as this one into a shouting match and hurt feelings. In fact, there is such an abundance of raw feelings close to the surface at the present time that we have to be keenly aware of ways not to incur more pain. The last thing we’d want to do is silence survivors.

    I would not start the class with my own remarks about or analysis of the events. This would be a circumstance when they would desperately want to know my thoughts and feelings; however, it would be all too easy for a woman professor to become a target at this time. In fact, my theory is that a hypervigilant focus on the professor’s opinions would allow students to avoid the difficulty of processing and coming to terms with their own thoughts and emotions. Too often, I have felt on trial in front of my students. Let’s model how not to put ourselves out there as easy targets. Of course, I’m not saying that we can control everything that will occur, but we can at least show the students that they cannot hide behind discontent with our opinions. That escape mechanism would be counterproductive for all.

    Instead, at the start of class, I would assign students to small groups based on the content of very short papers they’d compose and submit before class. This activity would be designed to allow them to talk freely on paper before sharing with each other in a small group of supportive listeners. In the 1970s, Nelle Morton, a feminist philosopher, famously called this, “Hearing each other into being.” In some cases, depending on the course, I would not lead a large group discussion at all. One more thing: I would be careful not to create false equivalencies; for example, I would not show the photos of angry women’s faces after showing the photos of angry men’s. If I decided to create a contrast, I would present photos of Blassey Ford’s face juxtaposed with Kavanaugh’s, and photos of the prosecutor’s and Feinstein’s facial expressions next to Graham’s and Grassley’s.

    Thank you for your inspiring ideas and for the opportunity to respond!

    Melissa D. Keith, Ph.D.
    Retired Senior Lecturer
    Former Chair of the Diversity Committee
    Department of English
    Kennesaw State University

    email: mfletc11@kennesaw.edu


  2. Dede Yow

    Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post, Sarah. I, too, remember well the Thomas hearing. We are still being subjected to the unenlightened and ego-driven voices these years later.


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