Brett Kavanaugh Is Nice. That Doesn’t Mean He’s Not Sexist.
We’ve confused “sexism” with meanness — and sexists routinely benefit from our confusion
Brett Kavanaugh is probably a sweet guy. That’s what I’ve picked up from the various op-eds about his “character,” several of them written by female acquaintances. In the Washington Post, Julie O’Brien praises Kavanaugh’s “personal kindness” as a “carpool dad,” noting that “he coaches not one but two girls’ basketball teams. His positive attitude and calm demeanor make the game fun and allow each player to shine.” In the Wall Street Journal, Amy Chua praises his “decency” toward women, collecting a fistful of testimonies from the (female) clerks she’s referred to his office: “I’ve never seen him be rude to anyone in the building,” one says.
It’s good to hear that Kavanaugh hasn’t cussed out any janitors lately. But there is something disingenuous here. When it comes to judging Kavanaugh’s qualifications for the Supreme Court, the writers demur. Yet we’re clearly supposed to conclude something about his jurisprudence from these testimonies, or there would be no reason to publish them. Most likely, we’re supposed to look at these stories (note the female bylines) and conclude that Kavanaugh — who will almost certainly cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade — is too nice to be sexist.
The problem is that niceness and sexism are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of perfectly nice, kind, polite men do and say sexist things. Sexism is not merely a behavioral problem; it is a political ideology aimed at restricting the rights of women. The only people who benefit, when we conflate rudeness and sexism, are the sexists themselves — which is why they work so hard to promote that confusion.
This problem isn’t specific to Kavanaugh. Conservative politicians have a history of cultivating paternal, kindly images to deflect attention from their lethally anti-woman policies. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s previous Supreme Court appointee, was also given the nice-guy treatment — he was a “decent man” who was “not fiery or pugnacious,” a “mild-mannered good boy” with an “open and gracious personality” — despite the fact that his law students claimed he’d taught them that women got pregnant to scam their employers out of maternity coverage. It was Ronald Reagan, Captain Jellybeans himself, who passed the global gag rule and the Hyde Amendment, stripping abortion access from low-income women and trans people here and abroad and killing thousands or millions in the process. (While there’s no formal death toll linked to the global gag rule, which strips funding from reproductive health care providers that perform or recommend abortions, the World Health Organization reports that more than 800 people die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and/or childbirth.)
Then there is John Kasich, who was cast throughout the 2016 Republican primary as the affable, aw-shucksing foil to Trump’s crude belligerence. Kasich attended a gay couple’s wedding, called on his opponents to be more polite to each other during heated primary debates, and was comically old-fashioned: He famously threw a Roots CD out of his car window because it contained swear words and demanded that his local Blockbuster stop carrying Fargo because it was too violent. The political press was bewitched. A Daily Beast headline marveled that Kasich was “So Gosh Darn Likable Even Protesters Are Voting for Him.” (“Nice guys finish last doesn’t apply in Ohio.”) The New York Times covered the phenomenon of liberal Kasich love. “John Kasich is the only [Republican] that doesn’t come off as a complete shitheel,” one such man wrote on Quora. “He behaves like the only adult in a room full of squabbling adolescents.”
Yet Kasich was the single most extreme anti-choice candidate in the race. During Kasich’s tenure as governor, reproductive rights in Ohio were decimated. He signed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, a full-on ban of any abortion where the fetus had Down syndrome, and a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood or any hospital that provides abortions. The state fell prey to wave upon wave of bizarre and punitive anti-abortion legislation — including one 2018 bill that would potentially subject abortion doctors and patients alike to the death penalty — in the hopes that Kasich would sign an unconstitutional bill and thus trigger the court battle that overturned Roe.
Donald Trump is swaggering and vulgar and mean; he has a list of sexual assault allegations as long as my arm, collects models as human trophies and publicly humiliates them for gaining weight, and accuses women who criticize him of being on their periods. He is sexist, and he will probably play a key role in overturning Roe v. Wade. John Kasich is polite, old-fashioned, affable, loves his wife and daughters, and (as per my grandma, who used to live across the street from him) is a wonderful neighbor. John Kasich is also sexist and may also play a key role in overturning Roe. Sexism is not a form of rudeness; it’s a belief system, and these men’s very different personas concealed roughly the same beliefs about women.
It’s easy to oppose sexism when it takes the form of interpersonal cruelty: rape, domestic violence, workplace harassment, or even the countless subtler slights that women endure every day, the condescension and dismissals and mean-spirited jokes. “These days the press is full of stories about powerful men exploiting or abusing female employees,” Chua writes. “That makes it even more striking to hear Judge Kavanaugh’s female clerks speak of his decency[.]”
But cruelty and violence are not the substance of sexism; they’re simply the means men use to enforce it, a crude but effective way to remind women that their lives and safety depend on male approval. Workplace harassment (to take Chua’s example) isn’t just bad because of the trauma it inflicts, but because it sidelines women’s careers, reminding them that professional spaces are not “theirs” and that their success is considered an intrusion on male territory. Think of sexist oppression as a fenced-in pasture and male violence as the electric fence that shocks women if they try to stray beyond it; it’s the fence, not the electricity, that is the problem.
Abortion is a flash point for sexism because — though not every woman needs an abortion, and not everyone who needs an abortion is a woman — anti-choice ideology is a clear example of men’s invasive, unearned control. An abortion is a private, usually elective medical procedure that takes place inside one person’s body for any number of reasons: health problems, lack of money to raise a child, the need to finish school or build a career, even the simple desire not to have a family. The only person genuinely affected by that decision is the person getting the abortion. For law or religion to intrude in that private moment, to make decisions for pregnant people, is flatly oppressive — a statement that women are not qualified to determine the course of their own lives, and that their bodies are public property. For trans men and nonbinary people, it’s also a statement that they have no right to bypass the “female” functions of childbearing and mothering that come with having a uterus.
Even women can get snookered by the myth of male superiority. Witness those throwing down in the national media to defend Brett Kavanaugh, a man who is being nominated specifically for the purpose of rolling back their rights. Brett Kavanaugh supported denying an abortion to a detained immigrant teenager; Brett Kavanaugh has said, publicly, that Roe v. Wade should never have happened; Brett Kavanaugh is sexist, because Brett Kavanaugh is anti-choice, and not all the gentle encouragement at all the pickup basketball games in all the world can change that. That women are telling us about his “kindness” or “decency” is only a new iteration of the line uttered by the enablers of every abuser: I don’t know what you’re talking about. He’s always been nice to me.
Jurisprudence is not a backyard barbecue. Being polite will never be enough to unravel the patriarchy, and liking or loving individual women does not rule out holding contempt for them as a gender. It’s a lot of work to insult every woman you meet for the rest of your life (though there are men who try, God bless them). It’s much easier to simply pass laws that render them second-class citizens. Not every man is cruel, because not every man has to be. They have the whole world — including, now, the Supreme Court — to keep us in line.