During the first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement, a woman was not allowed to speak publically to an audience that included men unless she were delivering a divine sermon from God in which it was understood that her words did not belong to her. Throughout history itself, women have been placed in cuntless boxes. These boxes are bound up with expectations that tell us how to speak, dress, contribute to society, and so on. Expectations like these are set in place in society to attempt to control women and while we have come so far today, the roots of sexism that set these expectations in place are still relevant.
One of the most popular forms of oppression is how women are held to strict marginal guidelines of how they are to operate in their speech and to what degree they are allowed to use their emotions. This, in turn, creates disproportionate gender-based dynamics that oppress women specifically in rhetorical discourse within the political sphere. Amid the spark of the #MeToo movement, the hearings that took place between Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh evidence this claim as a case study.
In July 2018, President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill the seat of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the highest judicial system in the country—the US Supreme Court. Following Kavanaugh’s nomination, Stanford Professor Dr. Christine Ford wrote a confidential letter to Senator Feinstein claiming that Kavanaugh physically and sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982. In September of 2018, after the White House confirmed that Kavanaugh’s nomination would not be pulled based on the letter, Dr. Ford allowed her name to be released publicly in attribution to the allegations. Days later, Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh both testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. By examining these testimonies through a rhetorical lens, an example of gender driven rhetorical margins are unveiled, further evidencing the fact that women are held to strict emotional and expressional guidelines that attempt to control their rhetoric. To view the highlights of Kavanaugh’s testimony, click here.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric argues the importance of ethos and pathos in relation to the speaker. I the texts, the role of the speaker is thoroughly explored to offer insight into the fundamental aspects of rhetorical delivery, and the responsibilities that a speaker has to their audience. For the purpose of analyzing the Ford and Kavanaugh testimonies, this historical text will allow for a closer look into how and why women within the political sphere operate differently in comparison to men. Rhetoric will largely offer an explanation of the different facets of speaker credibility in relation to female figures.
Of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, Ethos “depends on the personal character of the speaker” (Aristotle, 181), or in other words, their credibility. In Rhetoric, Aristotle separates ethos into three sub parts: “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill” (231). The concept behind Ethos that renders it so essential to rhetoric is that humans are more inclined to believe individuals that they deem to be honest, morally sound, and overall “good” people; a speaker’s personal character is essentially at the forefront of their every argument. With that being said, it is important to note that Aristotle did not place this credibility in the hands of an individual’s reputation: “persuasion should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of this character before he begins to speak” (Aristotle,182).
In an environment as polarizing as the United States political sphere, the idea of listening to an argument without being influenced by some form of pre-existing prejudice seems impossible. While it is true that everyone in the political sphere, both men and women, remain affected by prejudices, it is doubly true for women. Not only is a woman in this particular context judged based on partisanship, she is also judged on her gender. Moving forward from this point, a woman in the political sphere must not only be conscious of her reputation that precedes her, but also of her credibility that is communicated through her speech. This intersection of credibility and audience perception is where the guidelines placed on female rhetoric begin to surface.
The opening statements of both Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh delivered before the Senate hearings were drastically different not only in content, but also in delivery. When working from the idea that “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible” (182), it is important to place the speaker’s intentions within this idea—both Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh are tuning into ethos, doing whatever they think will persuade the audience to be open to their argument without any bias. An opening statement is a perfect opportunity for a speaker to immediately try to appease the audience and establish a sense of credibility.
Dr. Ford’s statement began with an initial introduction, stating her name, profession, and role as a mother:
“Thank you, Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Feinstein, members of the committee. My name is Christine Blasey Ford. I am a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I won’t detail my educational background since it has already been summarized. I have been married to Russell Ford since 2002 and we have two children.” Ford. Senate Hearing. 27 September 2018
Dr. Ford delivered these sentiments in a calm, collected tone. It is also worth noting that when addressing Grassley and Feinstein, Dr. Ford began with an expression of gratitude. This gentle and humble approach was likely calculated by Dr. Ford as the best way she saw fit to proceed. In comparison, Kavanaugh’s opening statement began without any introduction or expression of gratitude. In a stern and booming voice, he immediately began to address the allegations against him without any prior mention of himself and who he is as a person:
“Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Feinstein, and Members of the Committee: Eleven days ago, Dr. Ford publicly accused me of committing a serious wrong more than 36 years ago when we were both in high school. I denied the allegation immediately, unequivocally, and categorically. The next day, I told this Committee that I wanted to testify as soon as possible, under oath, to clear my name.” Kavanaugh. Senate Hearing, 27 September 2018
The differences between these introductions can be used to identify the different rhetorical moves used by each individual in relation to preserving and building up their credibility. Dr. Ford is choosing rhetorical moves that play into the societal expectations, set by men, that determine how women should proceed in emotional expression. A central component to most female gender stereotypes is that women are, by nature, more altruistic than men. This label of selflessness often characterizes women as helpers, which deems them as “nurturing and socially oriented (communal) rather than competitive and achievement oriented” (Heilman and Chen, 1). Behaviors assigned to and then expected of women prioritize sustenance, sacrifice, and humility. These expected behaviors “provide not only a blueprint for action for women themselves but also create expectations on the part of others about how women are likely to behave” (Heilman and Chen, 1). Now examining Dr. Ford’s opening statement in light of this stereotype, it becomes clear why she chose to proceed in such a reserved, humble, and composed manner—that is what will earn her points of credibility from the audience. Following in Aristotle’s advice, Dr. Ford is crafting her rhetoric so that her argument—tone, wording, and delivery—will sit well enough with the audience so her argument is representative enough of her character.
Though in this scenario Dr. Ford is not speaking as a politician herself, her allegations do hold the power of prohibiting Kavanaugh from moving forward in his Supreme Court nomination. With that being said, it is reasonable to examine this event in light of the fact that another man’s power is being threatened, and “whenever women seek any space traditionally held by a man—and especially the office of the commander in chief—they tend to be pornified, degraded, diminished, and treated differently” (Wilz, 358). In further continuing to analyze this event, it is beneficial to look at previous patterns of insult that women in the political sphere have been the brunt of, specifically Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite running a well-fought campaign and becoming the first woman to win the presidential popular vote, Clinton was heavily scrutinized for her appearance, tone of voice, and rhetorical moves. Clinton was often criticized for her lack of femininity, highlighting the choice that female politicians have to make between being tough or “appropriately feminine” (Wilz, 358). While women in the political sphere have to choose between identifying themselves either as strong and tough or feminine, men are able to identify as both tough and masculine; perhaps because traditional gender roles say that the two coincide with one another. Applying this idea to Dr. Ford’s rhetoric and then again to Kavanaugh’s rhetoric makes it clear why Kavanaugh was able to not only raise his voice in an intimidating and stern manner, but also why he did not feel the need to open his statement with an expression of gratitude or references to his humanity in attempt to gain a better standing with his audience.
The ending statements that concluded both Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh’s opening statements are worth comparing in light of the previously stated notions that women are perceived differently when threatening a man’s power. Much like the introductions to these statements, the comments made nearing the ends of the statements are quite different from one another. Dr. Ford begins to close her statement by withdrawing herself from the process of legitimizing the allegations and separating herself from legal process from there on out:
“My motivation in coming forward was to be helpful and to provide facts about how Mr. Kavanaugh’s actions have damaged my life, so that you could take into a serious consideration as you make your decision about how to proceed.
It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell you the truth.” Ford. Senate Hearing. 27 September 2018.
Exciting emotion within an audience is an essential part of rhetoric, and it is done very differently by women in comparison to men. Given the complex that women face in the political sphere in having to choose between being appropriately feminine or establishing themselves as tough characters, it is also essential to this analysis to point out the double standard in which women are allowed to operate emotionally. Emotional suppression brought upon women by societal expectations of femininity directly influence the rhetoric of a women in political context. The topic of meeting the needs of an audience by evaluating and estimating their internalized gender biases, which is what Dr. Ford does and what Kavanaugh sees no need to do.
When examining at the questioning that took place during this hearing, both the tone and composure that Dr. Ford held throughout her opening statement remain the same. With each question, she remains emotionally composed. She neither raises her voice, nor does she allow herself to cry. However, though Dr. Ford does not directly display emotions that she may be feeling or attempting to incite in the audience, she is practicing emotional reservation for the sake of her rhetoric. Because women have to operate within such thin margins when it comes to emotional expression, Dr. Ford is simultaneously upholding her own credibility and carefully avoiding inciting the wrong emotions in her audience.
During his questioning however, Kavanaugh’s responses were filled with not only emotional outbursts of aggression anger, but with several occasions in which he interrupted or cut-off Senators, particularly Senator Feinstein. Senator Feinstein calmly questioned Kavanaugh about his reluctance in welcoming an investigation from the FBI, to which he responded in an aggressive and raised tone of voice answers that did not sufficiently answer the question. The main difference between the actions displayed by Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh is that Dr. Fords were seemingly calculated, while Kavanaugh showed no interest in holding back how he wished to express himself. Because Kavanaugh is a man, he sought out no emotional reservation knowing that his actions were not held to a strict standard.