Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) certainly deserves criticism for her 11th-hour decision to support Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But the outrage over one woman’s vote is now veering into sexist territory.
Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by three women. He broke down in a public, partisan temper tantrum and repeatedly lied to and misled the Senate. Collins, who is known as a moderate, was said to be troubled by the spectacle. She was publicly undecided until the end, joining 49 other senators on Saturday, including five women, to vote for the nominee. In the following days, she said some regrettable things about “believing women” that don’t particularly make sense in light of her decision.
Progressives trashed Collins for all this. She was labeled “fraudulent” and “a betrayer of women.” She and the other four women who voted for Kavanaugh were essentially called gender traitors in a ”Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live.” The fact that she announced her decision in a 45-minute speech was viewed by some as a shameful grab for attention.
It’s all a bit over the top. Collins was one of 50 senators who voted for Kavanaugh. There were 45 men who had no problem putting an accused sexual assailant on the bench.
Collins is a woman, though, and one with a centrist reputation. The expectations she faced were of a different caliber. No one believed for a second that men in the GOP would empathize with women who’ve been sexually assaulted, or that they’d even take a woman seriously over the bluster of a white man who went to Yale.
But why are Republican men held to such a low standard? Seeing women as human beings shouldn’t be something we only expect women to do.
“In expecting Collins to somehow get women’s plight, we’re reinforcing the idea that women are the ones that can better recognize the trauma of sexual assault,” said Nikki Usher, a media professor at the University of Illinois. “That reinforces sexual assault and sexual harassment as ‘women’s issues’ that men cannot fully understand, which seems to me to be the opposite of what we’d want to have happen here.”
The sexism goes deeper still. Researchers have found that women are judged more harshly for making decisions than men ― particularly when the women are leaders in a male-dominated field. (Eighty percent of senators are men.)
Think, for example, of how Hillary Clinton was judged for deciding to use a private email server, versus how Donald Trump’s been judged for, well, a lot of things.
“When a man faces a hard decision, he only has to think and focus on making a judgment,” said Therese Huston, the author of How Women Decide, in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “But when a woman faces a similar hard decision, she, especially in business, has to think about both making a judgment, and she also has to navigate being judged.”
If a woman takes her time and deliberates before coming to a conclusion, she’s viewed as indecisive and “dithering,” Huston said. When a man takes his time, he’s seen as strategic.
Women are also expected to make “collaborative” decisions. When they do things, it can’t just be to their advantage; they’re expected to make decisions that serve the greater good.
In the case of Kavanaugh, you can see how Collins was in a bind. Was she supposed to act collaboratively within her party? The pressure was obviously extremely high to go along with the boys. Or was she supposed to act collaboratively with her gender? She had four other Republican women senators voting for Kavanaugh to turn to.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) hid behind Collins, waiting until after she made her decision to publicly say he would vote in favor of Kavanaugh. He hasn’t been as widely criticized.
“I’d like to see Manchin start to get some serious questioning to the same degree,” Usher said. “How funny would it be if we said, Joe, you’ve got a wife and daughters, shouldn’t you understand this?”
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