Christine Blasey Ford, Sally Quinn, And Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Fifty years ago, a young college student who would become one of the most influential women in Washington was sexually assaulted by a Senator. She didn't come forward with her story for more than fifty years, and the reasons why strike close to what we've been talking about for three weeks now.
One of the many questions that some Republicans raised about the allegations that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made against Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the issue of why it took her thirty-six years to come forward with her story of having been sexually assaulted at the age of fifteen. President Trump himself attacked Dr. Blasey Ford more than once based on this aspect of her story, something that she later said she found very distressing. The same objection was raised last year by supporters of Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of Alabama who had become the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate and who was accused of making inappropriate advances toward teenage girls when he was in his thirties. In response to these questions, many women came forward to tell their own stories, many of whom had kept what happened to them secret from friends, family, and even their husbands and children. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. We’ve known for quite a long time that sexual assault, whether it is committed against women or men, is one of the most under reported crimes in the United States. The reasons for keeping quiet are as myriad as the stories themselves, but generally include fear of the consequences of revealing such intimate things, fear of retribution, and fear that they won’t really be believed.
One of the most amazing examples of that silence can be found in a new piece in The New Yorker in which Sally Quinn, one of the most powerful women in Washington, tells her own #MeToo story to Susan Glasser:
A generation ago, there was another Senate confirmation fight derailed at the last minute by serious allegations of drinking and sexual misconduct. John Tower, a retired Republican senator from Texas, was nominated to be President George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary. The 1989 fight over his confirmation took place two years before Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas transfixed the nation, before talk of pubic hairs and Coke cans, and a would-be Justice’s porn-watching habits forever changed the national discourse.
Most commentators have compared the Kavanaugh fight to that over Thomas’s nomination, and with good reason. Like Kavanaugh, Thomas eventually won, while at the same time the Senate’s deeply flawed process and female outrage over it produced a Democratic victory at the ballot box in the next election. But ever since the Ford allegations about Kavanaugh surfaced, I have thought about the John Tower fight, and especially one of its most poignant, little-known subplots.
In the early ninteen-sixties, the journalist Sally Quinn was a twenty-year-old sophomore at Smith College when she met Tower at a cocktail party given by her parents. In a memoir, “Finding Magic,” published last year, Quinn recounted how, after the party, Tower asked her to lunch on the Hill, a date that was postponed to dinner. He attempted to rape her in the back seat of a taxi afterward. Quinn described how she was in shock, how she pleaded with him, “Senator, Senator, please stop,” and how she begged the cab driver, who realized what was happening, and hurried her to her parents’ home. “Overwhelmed with guilt and shame,” she told no one about it for years. When Tower was nominated for the Pentagon job, in 1989, Quinn was a famous journalist married to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, when two F.B.I. agents knocked on her door and asked about the incident. Quinn refused to talk to them. She did not believe her account would remain confidential. Besides, she had no corroboration, no proof. Who would believe her?
I called Quinn the night before Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to ask what she thought about her own experience all these years later. “I could have been Anita Hill,” she pointed out, “but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to ruin my life.” I wondered whether Quinn would think things were different this time, that the world had changed at all in the nearly thirty years since she had her own chance to decide whether to go public with her story of abuse at the hands of a powerful man. No way, she said. “Nothing has changed since Anita Hill, not a damn thing.” It sounded pessimistic to me, but also not necessarily wrong.
I called Quinn back on Thursday evening, after a tumultuous week, when it was already clear that the tumult would likely not change the outcome of Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment. Quinn said that she believed Ford had been telling the truth, but that it would not matter. “Bottom line,” she said, “civic duty or no, it’s just not worth it.”
Let’s just ponder this for a second.
For decades, Sally Quinn has been one of the powerful, most influential, most respected women in Washington, D.C. In addition to her own accomplishments as an author and journalist, her marriage to Ben Bradlee, the late legendary editor of The Washington Post made her part of the biggest “power couple” in the city aside from the President and First Lady. In fact, while Presidents and their wives came and went during the thirty-five years that her and Bradlee were married, “Ben and Sally” as the people in the know referred to the couple, were fixtures in Washington and friends with Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Senators, and Congressmen, not to mention all of the other men and women in power in Washington from the Nixon Administration to the Obama Administration. Aside from the late Katherine Graham, who was the publisher of the Post and Bradlee’s ultimate boss, I think it’s fair to say that there was no woman in Washington during this period who was more respected or who was more sought after as a guest at cocktail parties and State Dinners and someone that people who wanted to “be somebody” in Washington wished to call a friend.
John Tower, of course, was a former United States Senator from Texas who President George H.W. Bush had nominated as his first choice for Secretary of Defense. Who had represented Texas in the Senate for more than twenty years before retiring prior to the 1984 Election. Subsequently, he served as the head of a commission that was charged with investigating the Iran-Contra Scandal during President Reagan’s second term. While he was a Senator, he served on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and was the Chairman of that committee from 1981 until he retired thanks to the Republicans capturing control of that body in the 1980 Election. He had also served as one of the chief negotiators in arms control talks with the Soviets in the final years of the Cold War. Initially, Tower’s confirmation as Defense Secretary seemed assured given his long history in Washington and the fact that he had served with nearly all the Senators who would be voting on his nomination. Soon after his name was put forward for nomination, though, questions were raised about Tower’s drinking habits and about alleged womanizing while he was a Senator and afterward. Ultimately, Tower’s nomination was rejected by the Senate and President Bush nominated Dick Cheney to be his Secretary of Defense.
Had she come forward, Quinn’s story could very well have been as impactful on Tower’s nomination as Blasey Ford’s allegations were against Justice Kavanaugh. As noted above, though, Quinn, who by that point in the late 80s had already entered legendary status in Washington’s power circles. Despite this, she chose not to come forward with her story. Why? Well, we have only her words to go by but they are worth repeating:
When Tower was nominated for the Pentagon job, in 1989, Quinn was a famous journalist married to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, when two F.B.I. agents knocked on her door and asked about the incident. Quinn refused to talk to them. She did not believe her account would remain confidential. Besides, she had no corroboration, no proof. Who would believe her?
I called Quinn the night before Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to ask what she thought about her own experience all these years later. “I could have been Anita Hill,” she pointed out, “but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to ruin my life.”
I didn’t want to ruin my life. This is a woman who, at the time, was arguably one of the most powerful and influential women in Washington, a woman who could count Presidents, First Ladies, and many powerful people as friends. Despite this, she still thought of herself as the scared young college student in the back of a cab with an already powerful Senator from Texas. One would think that, even in the era of the late 1980s when the relationship between the sexes was far different than they are today and allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment were viewed far differently, that if anyone in Washington was going to be believed it would be Sally Quinn, regardless of the fact that the events she would have accused Tower of had occurred twenty years earlier. If Sally Quinn was afraid to come forward, is it any wonder that an ordinary woman like Christine Blasey Ford didn’t come forward for nearly four decades, or that many women who are sexually assaulted never tell anyone?