On Women's Freedom
Caryn D. Riswold

Remember the first moment we heard Christine Blasey Ford’s voice? It was in front of a bank of cameras on live TV facing down a mostly male panel of U.S. senators. She was there to testify under oath about being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh. Because she had successfully avoided all media before that day, most of the public had never heard her voice.

Remember how “girlish” it seemed? The soft tone and high pitch sounded incongruous with her academic and professional credentials as well as her navy power suit. Remember how her probably professionally-done-for-the-camera-that-day hair kept getting caught in her too-big glasses? I was terrified for her. Commentators talked about being disarmed by her voice. Reports indicate that President Trump was surprised at how believable she was, likely because he and others assumed she would be another stereotype—the loud, angry man-hater. Instead, she was a smiling, pleasant, agreeable woman. (Lemire et.al, 2018)

As her testimony and the morning session went on, she repeatedly sought to accommodate her questioners, asking “Is that okay?” saying “I’m fine now, I have the coffee,” and variations on “I wish I could be more helpful.” Linguistics professor and gender studies scholar Deborah Tannen pointed out how nearly everything about her public voice was gendered feminine: soft, apologetic, accommodating. It played by the spoken and unspoken rules of how women are to conduct themselves and communicate in the public forum. (Vesoulis, 2018)

Christine Blasey Ford

At the same time, the substance of the things she said made other headlines. Perhaps the most recognizable example: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” As many analysts pointed out, Dr. Ford served as her own expert witness because of her training in neuroscience and the psychology of trauma survival. “I was definitely experiencing the surge of cortisol, and adrenaline and epinephrine.” (Ducharme, 2018). She talked easily about brain chemicals and their effect on human memory, along with the ways that trauma disrupts these processes. Without hesitation, she claimed the experiential and scientific ground on which she stood and gave nothing up. “With what degree of certainty?” one senator asked about her confidence in her recollections. “100 percent,” she replied clearly.

This too was her public voice.

Tannen and others have highlighted the contrast between her voice in the morning and that of Brett Kavanaugh in the afternoon. He was “loud and brusque, refusing to answer some questions and turning others back on the Democratic senators probing him that followed.” (Vesoulis, 2018). When a female senator asked him whether he had ever blacked out from drinking, rather than answer, he flung the question back at her: “Have you?” As women often do, Ford tried to take up as little physical space during her testimony. Kavanaugh demanded as much as possible.

She named her fear in her opening statement. Probably knowing that all of this would happen, she did it anyway. She claimed her terror and sat through it. She put herself and her family at risk, changing the course of her life once more. Some say that she failed, because Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite her testimony. Others have said that her persistence and her voice made all the difference. The data on women voters and the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people who won Congressional seats in the midterm elections shortly after Ford’s testimony at Kavanaugh’s hearing suggest that it did indeed make a difference elsewhere.

Christine Blasey Ford was not in a winning position going into this hearing. No matter what she did, it wouldn’t be enough to convince some people to believe her. If she had chosen to not speak, many would have been left wondering if it could have made a difference. This reveals one of the many double-binds for women in patriarchy: They cannot do enough to be believed and trusted as readily as men. They cannot look exactly right or behave perfectly in order to be fully accepted. They cannot do enough to earn power because they are not men.

Perhaps there is another more liberating dimension of this truth: Because women cannot do or be enough under patriarchy, they are free from having to demonstrate perfection. This is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s famous aphorism in his 1520 Reformation treatise The Freedom of a Christian, also translated “On Christian Freedom,” wherein “A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything” and “A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.” (Luther 1520: 50). The Lutheran tradition has long understood that a Christian is freed from the obligation to earn salvation and merit the grace of God. Because one cannot ever do enough to earn grace, one is freed from even having to try.

What if women under patriarchy could hear and experience this word of grace?

No matter her appearance, her voice, her occupation, her station in life, patriarchy has ways of letting women know that it is not enough. This is debilitating for women, especially when they hold fast to the impulse toward perfection. For Luther, it was debilitating to confront the fact that he would never have certainty that he had done enough to earn salvation. In some ways, Luther burrowed all the way down and dwelled in the harrowing depths of this reality. When he finally came out on the other side, he found this essential, liberating truth. If a Christian doesn’t need to worry about earning her own salvation, she can serve her neighbor more fully.

Might women in patriarchy be able to do that? Some women. Those of us who, like Ford, have expertise and ability and the resource of other privileges based on race, education, economics, and marital status might be equipped to attend to the needs of others. In many ways, Ford tried to accommodate her questioners. In other ways, she did what she was freed to do: speak her truth and drop some science, with and without the coffee, hair-caught-in-glasses and all.

This is what happens when we let the impulse go and dwell in the fact that we won’t ever be enough. We can simply inhabit our expertise, our voice, our choices, and our bodies. We name the fear and speak out anyway, “attentive to the needs of all.” We know there is a risk, and we can choose to be vulnerable regardless. Insofar as we are able, when we have personal and structural power to draw upon, we can attend to what is just and right and necessary.

After all, women do know some things about brain chemicals and the science of trauma, about biblical texts and theology, about linguistics, politics, community organizing, and healthcare. In Christine Blasey Ford, we see an example of a woman with a confidence born from the grace of women’s freedom to challenge authority, call out the status quo, and persist through the harrowing depths.

Even when your voice is deemed girlish, when your hair isn’t just right, when you are afraid, and when you know it might not even make the kind of difference you expect.


Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.


Works Cited

Ducharme, Jamie. “‘Indelible in the Hippocampus is the Laughter.’ The Science Behind Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony.” Time Magazine, 2018. http://time.com/5408567/christine-blasey-ford-science-of-memory/

Lemire, Jonathan, Zeke Miller, Catherine Lucey. “Trump shaken by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, but backs Brett Kavanaugh after hearing.” Chicago Tribune, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-trump-reaction-ford-kavanaugh-senate-hearing-20180927-story.html

Luther, Martin. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther Study Edition. Translated by Mark Tranvik, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Vesoulis, Abby. “The Kavanaugh-Ford Hearings Showed How Women and Men Talk Differently.” Time Magazine, 2018. http://time.com/5409469/christine-blasey-ford-brett-kavanaugh-gender/

[1] This essay is based on remarks delivered at the 2018 annual meeting of the Lutheran Women in Theological and Religious Studies network in Denver, Colorado.


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