Friday, October 5, 2018

A New Sisterhood and the Meaning of No

Last Saturday night, I received a Facebook message from an Anchorage attorney I didn’t know, asking for my personal email address. We had several friends in common and Alaska is a tightknit legal community, so I gave it freely. 

Five days later, I was sitting three feet away from Senator Lisa Murkowski at a small conference table in her DC office, looking her squarely in the eye and asking her to please vote her conscience on Brett Kavanaugh. 

What happened in between was one of the most intense and memorable civic experiences of my life.

The woman who’d messaged me wanted to write a letter signed by Alaskan women lawyers opposing Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and in order to gather as many signatures as possible, created a Facebook group to begin drafting it. The group quickly began to accumulate members, several of whom subsequently composed a succinct and dispassionate plea to Senator Murkowski to reject this appointment.

Shortly after the group formed, a woman named Susanna—whom I also didn’t know and whose husband had passed away only three weeks prior—posted there that the ACLU would be supporting 100 Alaskan women to travel to DC that week to meet with our Senators on Kavanaugh.

I didn’t even consider going on the trip. It was late Sunday evening by now, and my family needed me at home the following week. I have a full-time job as the primary income earner in a four-person household. My 10 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son were mired in school and activities; flying all the way to the east coast on such short notice was a non-starter.

But the next morning, the attorney who’d originally emailed me posted that she was going to DC, and urged others to do the same despite their busy lives as lawyers, spouses, and moms.

“Here’s what I want for my birthday this year,” I texted my husband, and put in for three days of personal leave at work. By 5:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, I was at the Juneau airport on my way to Washington.

Thursday was a whirlwind, and most of us barely ate or slept.

Our group met with Senator Sullivan in the morning and Senator Murkowski in the afternoon. In both meetings, we carefully echoed the points in our letter—which by this time bore the signatures of nearly 400 Alaskan women lawyers—on why we felt Brett Kavanaugh was a grave and irreversible mistake for our nation’s highest court. The meeting with Lisa (her small population of constituents often refer to her by her first name) felt especially critical. 

We knew she was undecided on Kavanaugh, and for good reason. An Alaska bar member herself, we knew she would absorb the legal and ethical reasons—as opposed to the policy leanings—to vote no on Kavanaugh. 

We made the pitch that this wasn’t about policy. We hadn’t flown down for Neil Gorsuch. It was about the public’s faith and integrity in the judiciary itself. It was about credible allegations of sexual assault that arose during an interview for a lifetime job that would affect millions of American lives for a generation, most notably the majority of women who have experienced sexual violence. It was about the applicant’s entitled and intemperate response to these allegations, his perjurious answers to questions, his disrespect to a female Senator, his combative demeanor, his conspiratorial rantings, and the naked partisanship and vows for retribution that “what goes around comes around.”

Even as I sat at the table, listening to my new sisterhood explain these points with trembling poise, and doing so myself, I was acutely aware of how lucky I was. This was a unique, quiet, and historic moment, and I was immeasurably grateful.

I’ve been given so many blessings in life. Healthy children and a supportive spouse. Professional mentors and mentees alike. The ability to process my thoughts in writing and entertain people in the process. The recklessness, I suppose, to speak my mind frankly and irreverently about things that matter to me. Loving parents who provided their only child with an education that brought me to this room and enabled me to articulate myself.

Tears streamed down my face in the Senate Gallery during the cloture vote on Friday morning when Senator Murkowski whispered “no” and her vote was confirmed on the roll call. That one word—“no”—meant so much to so many. Because our Senator wasn’t just saying “no” on her own behalf to a single nominee. 

This was much bigger than one judicial nominee or one woman’s assault.

That soft, quiet “no” was heard around the country by millions of women whose own “nos” were and continue to be ignored in college dorms, bedrooms, and workplaces every single day. 

That “no” was the denunciation of a culture that silences women and elevates privilege and entitlement over their sworn testimony and bodily integrity. 

That “no” was the rejection of the idea—so deeply entrenched that millions of women cheer and promote it against their own interests—that nothing in America deserves more coddling, reverence, and ferocious protection than a wealthy white man’s ambition and “reputation.”

All throughout my 60-hour trip, I heard supportive words from back home that drowned out the countering jabs of harassment, cruelty, and even my own ample cynicism. And I shared them with my new sisterhood of Alaskan women, most of whom I hadn’t met before. 

I am leaving Washington knowing that we all said “no” together, even though it feels futile. And that we helped Lisa—acting alone and yet with millions—do the same.

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