“Is this the little woman who made this great war?” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when meeting Harriett Beecher Stowe in 1862.
She wasn’t, of course — the mechanism for the Civil War had been set in motion with the founding of our country, 80 years earlier. Its creation an untenable balance, with an equal number of slave states and free states together in a nation supposedly based on liberty. The conflict was inevitable; Stowe merely wrote a book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that helped galvanize Northerners against an injustice all too many were willing to accept.
The question of slavery seemed settled in 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy. Though the question of who is a person, who counts, is still the essential issue of America, asked again and again throughout our history — should these former slaves be allowed to have careers in the military? To go to school with white kids? Should employers be obligated to hire them? And what about women? Are they human beings fully formed enough to vote? To fight as soldiers?
The most recent instance unfolded dramatically last week, as Brett Kavanaugh was not waved onto the Supreme Court by his fellow members of the powerful, ruling class, but instead found himself confronted by an accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who claims he tried to rape her at a party when they were both teenagers.
Does it matter? Does she matter? How you answer the question depends on where you stood before asking it. The Republicans, having elected a man who admits molesting women, and contort themselves to tolerate any lie and ignore any infamy, say “No.” They didn’t even want to investigate her claims, because a year into the #MeToo movement, such questions are better left to Hollywood.
For those who somehow missed it, Ford was emphatic, human and believable, Kavanaugh angry and evasive. It was the worst job interview of all time, but that won’t matter because the Republicans have the majority in Congress, and they want a man on the court who will undermine American women’s ability to direct their own lives, as if they were men.
It’s stunning for many in our country to find ourselves in this position in 2018. I’m not sure why. We saw it coming. The Fox-fueled bolus of right-wing grievance, fantasy and malice suppurated for eight years under Obama, and exploded under Trump in a riot of norm shattering. Maybe in November we’ll begin inching our way back to the half-decent society we fancied we were before. Maybe we won’t.
The good news — and I wouldn’t leave you on a Monday without some good news — is the Supreme Court is important, but has limits. They’re justices, not kings. The court’s rulings matter only to the degree the public is willing to follow them. Brown v. the Board of Education is considered important for establishing the right of blacks to an equal education, but it didn’t bring it into being. White school districts closed, private schools opened, and the bigoted system continued. We certainly aren’t there yet, 64 years on. Are we?
The court can scale back women’s rights. Whether women obey is another matter.
And since last week’s news pivots on memory and its intersection with history, I have to add that there is no evidence what Lincoln said when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe. The quip didn’t start circulating until 34 years later, after her death. And the effect of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” upon the North is questionable: it was the South that the book inflamed, heightening its indignation and grievance, encouraging the break that spelled the end of their way of life. A reminder, that systems destroy themselves from within as much as they are destroyed from without. Aggressors have a habit of overreaching — that’s what makes them aggressors in the first place.
What Lincoln certainly did write, preserved in his notes before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, is this: “Whoever moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”
In that light Ford, the alleged victim, might ultimately wield more influence over history than Kavanaugh, the future Supreme Court justice. She could be the more significant player in this latest act of our national drama, by casting a harsh and unmistakable light exactly where women are in this country, still, despite pretensions otherwise.