The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted. What could I say that wasn’t bad news? But now the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have happened and all hell has broken loose.  Women protesting all over the place, occupying offices in government buildings, clamoring for the white boys in charge to listen to their stories and pay attention. The best quickie is the Instagram mashup that has Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction leaning over Kavanaugh and shouting, “You did it!! You know you did it!”

Here is what I wrote on September 29, 2018. I was responding to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Lindsay Ellis, from September 27: As Kavanaugh Allegations Widen, Elite-College Alumni Recall Harassment From Decades Past Students, by Lindsay Ellis. She has said she wants to post it in various places so I figured I’d post  it here, too.

The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

As a 1965 graduate of Radcliffe (which was then still in the process of becoming Harvard), I am being urged by family and husband to write something about all this.

I have a slightly different take on the #MeToo stories.  I would tell three kinds of stories, not one. First and foremost and overwhelmingly important is naming and describing the patriarchal social structure that we all lived in back then, men and women together. It still exists, as we saw displayed in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings yesterday, but I am going to talk about it in the past tense for now. Picture it as a mansion made of marble, with columns and twenty wide steps leading up to the front doors. How you inhabited it depended on your gender. At Harvard when I was a student, there was a whole undergraduate library just for “men.” There was one – only one – women’s “lounge” Harvard Yard, in a basement. Walking through the Yard, women could wear trousers only if the snow was a certain number of inches deep. A prominent professor, beloved by many, responded to my request that he be my thesis tutor with “I don’t do girls.”  Women professors for role models of how to survive in the mansion? To my knowledge, there were two: one was a poet who committed suicide.  And there was the white-coated, silver-haired Cambridge doctor to whom I went seeking birth control — a diaphragm – who said, “Educated women make wonderful mothers.” Did he actually assault me? No — but I nearly died of a back street abortion the week before I graduated. This is at a time when the ratio of men to women if you include the graduate schools was about 20 to 1 and getting hit on was as certain as getting rained on if you went outdoors in March.


None of what I’m talking about here constitutes sexual assault in and of itself. It’s not individual, it’s the whole structure — the famous professor, the kindly doctor, the library that did not admit women — these are just people occupying rooms in this mansion, but it is designed and run to make all men the masters of all women. Women trying to walk around in that mansion? Well, if you didn’t take the back stairs you had to wear a maid’s outfit or just accept the idea that they assume you were a slut.


I can’t begin to touch how this was racialized, at least not in this letter.


But it wasn’t all the men, of course. When I connect with old classmates, men especially, my strongest feeling is affection and I want to ask, “You were there too, how was it for you?” This house of patriarchy was great for bullies like Brett Kavanaugh, for whom a drunken party with girls was normal, but it was awful for young men who watched with shame and fear as their women friends and sisters got hurt or bashed around psychologically. What’s more, the roaring of the bullies was as much directed at other young men as it was at us, the women. They suffered right along with us, although we didn’t have a way to talk about it. The house of patriarchy was a totality and occupied all possible space, but there were some safe places tucked away within it — a theater group, a lab, a civil rights organization that had some politics, a chess club where a guy who wasn’t a bully could be undisturbed and actually study. They also might find a partner, a woman who wasn’t attracted to bullies, who could help keep both of them safe. But other young men got dragged or dazzled into the magic circle of the jerks for whom the patriarchy was designed, the football guys and other athletes. During my years at Harvard I could spot those jerks a mile away: they were the B-School guys, the Law School guys, and some of Government majors who aspired to be law school guys. Not so much the Medical school guys, who were usually nerds. (And these grad schools were overwhelmingly male; 50 years later, I probably have to explain that.) If those who were dragged in weren’t Kavanaugh themselves, they hung out with him and basked in the glow, and did what he dared them to do or else. Him renting a bus to take his buddies to Fenway Park and drinking themselves silly both ways would be typical.


The mansion itself is just a place, although it’s a place with rules. But it doesn’t in itself perform sexual assault. It has rooms where Harvey Wienstein can be left undisturbed for a few hours after lunch, and someone at the front desk who will call him when the girl shows up, and someone else who will walk her to the elevator, but the mansion itself doesn’t do anything. If it was a workplace, we would call it “hostile environment,” but it’s not a workplace, it’s the world. Or it wants to be the world.


So that’s the first way I’d like to see the #MeToo stories told: the mansion. The second way I’d want to see them told is through the eyes of the people who were men but not bullies. I was lucky enough to know quite a few of them. These were my friends. I told my husband that these were guys who would stop when I said “Stop,” but many of them I had no sexual relationship with at all. Today I am still friends with some of them. I have also been to reunions where a guy or two has come up to me, someone I didn’t know, and apologized — not for himself, necessarily, but on behalf of his cohort.  It brings tears to my eyes right now to remember this. There have also been suicides and long depressions and mental illness among some of these guys, I want to say, whereas others have done fine (but none are rich lawyers, by the way). Some of the men who were not bullies themselves were undoubtedly sexually abused, just to show who’s boss. Mark Judge’s depression and alcoholism might be the price he paid for hanging out with Brett Kavanaugh.


These guys, the good guys who are not natural bullies and who hesitate to become members of the Kavanaugh gang get hurt in many ways that are not getting headlines these days. Living around bullies can make you crazy; maybe it’s like PTSD.


Of course, neither the victims nor the witnesses could talk about their experience out loud. It was worse than forbidden, it was unspeakable. There were no words for it. You couldn’t name it because there was no vocabulary for it. Lacking practice, we none of us knew what to say or how. That will make you crazy.  Doing what Christine Blasey Ford did was an act of sanity in the face of that prohibition. Apparently her just saying those forbidden words out loud in public was so powerful that Brett Kavanaugh has decided that it has destroyed his family, his reputation, his career. No wonder it was forbidden!


The third story, then is the experience that Christine Blasey Ford recounted. I want to say first off that her story was so familiar to me that I felt that I could have told it myself. This, and things like this, is what happened not just once or twice but all the time back when I was at Harvard. Maybe not exactly that way, and maybe not to me, but the banal normality of her experience was so absolute that I felt I could have walked right up those stairs and heard those boys laughing— giggling, really, keeping up a running commentary on the challenges of peeling a girl out of a one-piece bathing suit.


Maybe the best way to communicate how banal and normal it was to experience sexual assault at Harvard is to say that there were lists of abortionists that circulated among the girls in my dorm. There was one famous one, in Ashland, Pennsylvania, whose name had been mentioned in a poem by Anne Sexton, but there were others, in Montreal and Switzerland and Puerto Rico, and it was not unusual for someone to say, “Hey, can I get a look at that list, please?” I heard it referred to as “the cost of doing business.” You could stay in the dorm, wear your fuzzy slippers and hair curlers, and be pretty sure of staying a virgin, or you could go out into the world and try to live the same kind of life the guys were leading, going places, meeting people, coming back late in a taxi, in which case you took a whole set of risks that the boys did not take and those risks were with you all the time, with payday coming once a month when you did or did not get your period.


Yesterday I was so upset (both upset and awed) by what I was hearing during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that I took my iPhone, left the house and walked down to the bus stop near our house and just rode the Number 18 bus for a few hours, listening, from Berkeley into Oakland and back, making myself invisible in the company of the other bus riders. A bus is a nice alternative to the mansion. I did notice that quite a few other riders were women my age and they were all listening intently to something on their phones.


Then the Senators went to lunch and came back home and now Kavanaugh was being questioned. I do not want to pay him the respect of saying a lot about him. Instead, I want to say what happened to me while I listened to him. I was shocked to find that I was watching him re-build the mansion of patriarchy, brick by brick, log by log, marble column by column, right in front of my eyes.  While listening to Christine Blasey Ford testify, it had been like being in some plain flat place like an open field, just plain reality. She and I were both in the world I recognize, the world I live in now, where girls can get birth control and marriage is not necessary and gay couples are no big deal, and where we can and should talk about bad things and call them by their name and send bullies and jerks and rapists to prison, not put them on the Supreme Court.  Blasey Ford sat there under the lights being stared at by millions of people and she said out loud things that were true in 1982 and true today, and millions of people listened to her and nodded their heads and agreed that she was telling her story the right way, at the right time, to the right people. “Credible,” everyone agreed.


And then Kavanaugh got started. He was told that he could make his opening statement as long as he wanted, and it was long. First, he seemed to be occupying the same reality that Christine Blasey Ford and I inhabit, on that same flat plain. I think he expressed sorrow for her, while also insisting that he didn’t do it: he himself had never met her, he didn’t know her. Then he talked about his family, his father (seeming to stifle sobs while mentioning his father) and his daughter. Then as he talked, his tone got louder and he seemed to puff up with air. At about this point I suddenly felt a chill: I could see the mansion start to rise before me. I could see what he was doing. He was building it right in front of us by listing all its rooms and telling us what went on in each one. He listed his jobs mowing lawns, his summer athletic camps, his “captain’s workouts,” the football team, the basketball team, lifting weights, working his tail off, going to church (which for him is automatic “like brushing my teeth”), the private Catholic boys’ schools he and his buddies went to and the matching private Catholic girl’s schools where the girls that were socially OK went. Then it was Yale and Yale Law School and clerking and working for George Bush, flying on Air Force One. Room by room, he was reconstructing the mansion with all its many rooms, painting it clearly for us, every single room full of regular guys like him leading lives like his. He was building a different “normal”, not the normal that Christine Blasey Ford and I live in, but the normal of himself, the normal in which he is the top dog. By the time he had pretty much listed just about every kind of elite male privilege (boy or man) that a white guy can get in this country, he had passed from calm to sorrowful to a little sniffly to mad, then really full-on pissed off and loud, making threats and finally in a white bully rage, leaning forward with his face blown up, saying things like “You will reap the whirlwind!”  At the climax he was up high in the mansion, standing on the very balcony, his arms wide to the world, suffering like Jesus on the cross because this woman had “ruined his life, his family, his reputation,” etc etc etc. — a victim, but also he had rebuilt the mansion, built an establishment around himself of which he was the exemplary deserving occupant.


My husband was also watching Kavanaugh on TV and he asked, “Is that Shakespeare?”  My sister in law was there and she said, “No, the Bible.”  But there’s a way in which Kavanaugh’s rage was something out of Shakespeare, in the sense of mad Lear on the heath, wild and raging that he has had his crown grabbed out of his hands. However, when Shakespeare builds up a character like this — usually someone who has lost something and tries to get the universe to converge on him and get it back for him  – Shakespeare makes sure we can see the other characters on the stage gaping at the guy who has gone off the rails. In Shakespeare, someone will survive to pick up the pieces when this guy blows up. It will be a tragedy, but someone will survive.


Not so with Kavanaugh, who finally stopping bloviating leaving everyone clearly exhausted. Diane Feinstein, who although she has a lot of money nevertheless grew up in that mansion, was probably having a hard time focusing on what is real and what is not. She seemed to fumble the first question. Kavanaugh then managed to filibuster his way through most of the ensuing questions. Ultimately, of all the Democratic Senators, only Cory Booker, the Black ex-mayor of Newark and now Senator from New Jersey, was able to bring the jerk to heel and keep him from interrupting. In fact, it seemed as if it was faintly possible that Kavanaugh was afraid of Booker. Which makes sense, especially if you believe as I do that the reason white policemen shoot Black men is because white bullies are afraid of Black men generally, and should be, because they owe them nothing and have nothing to lose.


Now I’ll bring this around to the #MeToo movement, which has brought out into the light the stories of what it is like for women in the mansion where most of us still live. #MeToo stories are usually individual stories. We need to go past that. I’m saying there are two other stories without which the stories of individual assaults and violence are incomplete.


One of these is the story of the mansion itself, by which I mean all the activities in all the different rooms, closets, hallways, basements and ballrooms where people who may think they play only a whisper or a shadow of a role nonetheless keep the building standing upright. Go back to the fine silver-haired doctor who didn’t give me a diaphragm; he was performing his role in the mansion, but you couldn’t exactly say he assaulted me, could you?


The second is the story of the men and boys who can see what’s wrong, can see the blows falling on the woman or girl next to them, but who just eat their own pain and fear being singled out by a bully if they speak up. The structure of the mansion, visible to women, is probably invisible to them; they bump into its walls and don’t understand where the doors are. They must experience something that makes them question what the value of being a man might be.


Ultimately, my husband and I calmed down last night by trying to figure out what could be done right now. He said, “Economic equality.” I said, “No, control over our bodies comes first.” Of course, that’s why the right wing wants Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court: to get rid of Roe versus Wade. So we agreed that the thing to do right now is to support Planned Parenthood. No wonder the Republicans want to de-fund it.


Enough for now. Thanks for reading all this.


Helena Worthen



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

19 thoughts on “The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

  1. I began reading this article just as I had sent out a request for a lab-prep for a class I teach at my community college. I have been teaching this class for four years, starting as a lab instructor, and moving quickly up to teaching its accompanying lecture and lab combined. Each semester, I present two labs that involve cultures of bacteria that must be prepared in advance of the lab. This has always been done by the lead teacher or a lab tech, on a predetermined schedule which I then follow.

    This semester, I was informed by my lab tech that I was to send my lead instructor, a tenured Associate Prof, an email requesting these cultures. I did. It was short and professional, and closed with good wishes for the current semester. The email I got back was delayed by four days, and by then I had read this entire piece–unaware that it would be relevant.

    The lead, tenured PhD wrote me back with a snarky, rude, inflammatory, combative and condescending response, telling me that, gee, since I thought I was qualified to choose my own text for the class (commonplace), I ought to be able to make “[my] own cultures, no?”

    My Dept head promptly addressed this issue (he had, weirdly, been CCd by the Tenured guy in the email I received) by A) teaching me to prepare my own cultures–I thing I could do myself, but in the interest of continuity, I took his lesson; and B) promptly telling me to “stay out of the guy’s way,” and “you’re not the only one.” And then I thought of this piece of yours.

    I’m emboldened, in part by this writing and in part because I have an excellent union behind me.

    Thank you.

    1. Sara — I am extremely interested in how you made the connection between what I wrote in the Kavanaugh piece and your experience as a community college professor dealing with the bad behavior of someone above you on the status ladder. I have been assuming that the people who read and respond to the Kavanaugh piece are seeing it via some link involving women’s issues and the current election — not anything to do with teaching in a community college. However, the situation you describe is very familiar to me. I taught English comp as an adjunct/part-timer in many places around the Bay Area. In fact, that’s how I got my labor education — by being sent to labor ed courses by my union, the CFT – which ultimately got me the job at Illinois (with several stops along the way). So either you clicked back and saw posts about that on my blog, or else you just intuited that we were on the same wave length on this topic — can you tell me more? Where are you and what is your union? Thanks —

  2. Helena thank you for your astute and heartfully recounted piece. As the mother of a middle school aged boy I worry about him bumping up against those invisible- to -him walls, and saying nothing because he doesn’t know how to resist and because the consequences for him speaking up are perceived to be – and indeed still could be – dire. I struggle, even as a well educated and aware, woman and mother, to give him the right script. The script that would allow him to do the right thing and not be hammered socially. My heart is breaking for him, and the girls and women – boys and men – he might not be able to stand up for. We have far to go; miles before we can sleep.

  3. Oh my. You have so easily cut through all the talking head sound bites and political posturing, your words landing squarely in my internal landscape, and hung this portrait of the social conspiracy against women, laid bare, cold and stark as exam room stirrups.

  4. I’m sorry, but your comment about women remaining virgins by having curlers in their hair and fuzzy slippers is incredibly sexist. Hinting that the with-it women were having sex-and abortions-is while the nerds stayed in the dorms was not my experience. I attended a Catholic college and my friends and myself remained virgins while working movement politics like antiwar work, grape boycotts, and civil rights issues. We didn’t have the worries you mention and still had our dignity. And supporting Planned Parenthood! They oppose single-payer and fought unionization by their employees. What the hell!

    1. I had to think about your comment for a while before responding. I would step back a bit and and look at the gender relations at the college you attended. I can’t tell if it was a single-sex institution or not. If it was, then probably women all had equal access to the best courses, the best professors, the best labs – or at least access was not on the basis of gender. That would have made a huge difference for starters. Even if the institution admitted boys, my guess is that if there was no predatory herd of young guys with license to hunt hovering around you all, and there was a consensus about virginity that the girls could live with, then I’ll bet that the social movement work that you participated in was probably also pretty much on the basis of gender equality. Sounds great to me!! I did not mention that my Dad, who had been to Harvard back in the 1930s when gender relationships were even worse (if you can imagine) than when I was there, did not want me to go to Radcliffe. He said, “It’s too hard for you.” I thought he meant academically, which meant that I had no choice but to go. Instead, now that I have had a chance to read some of his letters and diary of his experiences there (as a scholarship boy who earned money teaching cram courses for the rich playboys who drank and partied all night and slept through their classes) I know what he meant. I probably would have been better off going to a really co-educational, smaller college, maybe even a women’s college.

      By the way, does Planned Parenthood actually NOT support Single Payer? Is that true?

  5. Thank you Helena, for writing this great piece in opposition to Kavanaugh. I am afraid, however, that the point will soon be moot… Not only did this man apply his “boys will be boys” to Dr. Ford’s brave stand in the 1980s, he now raped her again with words, in front of millions, while we all watched and many tacitly approved. And now, with his almost assured confirmation, women’s rights will back pedal to the dark ages. Not only will women lose though: indeed, all vulnerable will be forsaken, as he stomps his “house of Kavanaugh” and the mighty all boys’ rule takes over the land under the trump regime… Our country will not be seen as the beacon of light it once was for all vulnerable, for those seeking safety, justice, but it will be shown as the travesty it has become.

    Yet we must keep writing, keep fighting, keep struggling, keep tilting windmills… Thank you.

    Besos, not borders, Ana

    1. Thank you, Ana, and thank you for your work with contingent faculty. Pushing back against the cruel hierarchies of academia is a never-ending fight.

  6. Thank you, Vanessa. . Yes, it’s an entry point. Trying to mentally construct it along racial lines makes me dizzy.

    The Mansions of Academe! Oppression is so adaptable.

    1. Helen, before continuing, I’d like to explain/apologize for no longer re-blogging all your posts. The free software that enabled auto-posting posts was discontinued — plus broader changes in social media architecture designed to thwart bots. The latter does not lend itself to brief explanation, but I can try if you like.

      The Mansions are fiefdoms of oligarchy, splintered into separate holdings all too often difficult to connect, characterized by communication failures. Did you notice during the media circus how little attention media or sensation hungry readers paid to yet equally egregious but less click-worthy news?

      Here are just a few: another tax cut for the wealthy, immigrant fathers on hunger strike, continuing, failure to unite families, continuing ICE raids, LBGT spouses of diplomats denied visas, continuing US retreat from global community, work requirements for disabled to qualify for Medicaid and public housing, bombings, PSLF failures, climate change related natural disasters, US gov suing states over sanctuary, net neutrality and stricter environmental standards…and more.

      Take note that these actions fall heaviest on the most precarious. All that is part of why I re-named and shifted emphasis on precarious academic labor to be more inclusive. I dare say that is also why helping asylum seeking and separated families takes up more of Ana’s time.

      Imo this isn’t just about women’s bodies but the larger agenda of total corporate control. Let’s not forget that Kavanaugh’s judicial record, voting 87% for corporate interests over public interest.

      1. You are so right Vanessa. And yes, I noted that when you thanked me, Helena, for my work with the “cruel hierarchies of academia.” But these days I leave the work of contingent faculty to others. Instead my work these days, for a long time now, has focused on the most vulnerable migrants, those who come seeking shelter yet are shunned and not even abandoned, they are jailed.

        So yes, this confirmation is not only a slap in the face to vulnerable women, to minorities, to contingent faculty fighting every day, but to all those who seek a better lot in life and are stomped by those who have, by those who want more, by those who think they are owed it all.

        And yes, I keep fighting, though my particular fight these days focuses on the asylum seekers who really have no say — physically or metaphorically — so I have chosen to become the voice they cannot speak. With that then, I leave you with a poem that will be published in Detained Voices / Voces detenidas in both English and Spanish. When I can (though I don’t have much time either for creative work!), I try to let their voice break through in art with mine:

  7. I was stunned and appalled but, on reflection, not surprised by the waves of hostility that K’s narcissistic mean drunk rant generated among followers, including women, against Dr Ford’s brave, carefully crafted, powerful statement.

    Her accounts struck a chord with so many of us. I remembered the arrogant, pushy Cathedral boys from the Catholic high school in south Louisiana. K reminded me of them from the get-go.

    Manipulation, power and control. I’m not sure I’d lay out the Mansion blueprints along gender lines alone or controlling just women’s bodies. That’s part of it — and a useful entry point for processing this cautionary tale we best not forget or allow to distract us as it may have these past few weeks,

  8. Thanks, Helena, for your highly evocative depiction of the world that women have inhabited as normal and that is largely invisible to men. It was worse when you and I were in college (I graduated in 1973) but the vestigal mansion still exists in many institutions and where it does not, blueprint of the mansion is easily accessible.

    I went to Vassar and was a member of its last all female freshmen class. That year, some male transfer students were admitted and the next year male freshmen. On weekends, busloads of men from Yale or West Point or other predominantly male schools would come for mixers or other busloads would take women to their schools.

    The great thing about going to college in New York was that abortion was legal in that state, though I was fortunate to not need one. Some junior faculty publicly admitted they sought a job at Vassar because it afforded access to so many smart young women looking for love. One of the women in the class the year before mine was hugely popular and envied because she became engaged to her Psychology professor the first year he taught there. Many if not most of the male students gloried in the number of women available, and some of them behaved atrociously. Four
    of them took over the yearbook my senior year and it was a travesty.

    Some men were wonderful, but it was hard to make friends in the mansion where most social interaction between women and men revolved around competing for male attention. Our scholarship simply mattered less than being likable it settings where male students exercised their privileges without restraint. I resented the way the small number of male students on campus dominated every conversation in classrooms where they were present and seemingly, much of the extracurricular activity. I don’t remember hearing about any sexual assaults; as you say, we had no language to speak of such things.

    Of course class was a huge factor, too. Those of us on scholarship were painfully aware that our wealthier peers knew we did not belong in their club. Vassar provided me with a rigorous and intellectually liberating undergraduate education and relationships with gifted faculty who nurtured my mind, but I was never truly comfortable. I felt continually stressed to the breaking point and had what I believe was a breakdown in the spring of my first year, developing a very painful ulcer that plagued me all four years. I felt like I was an imposter there, never measuring up even though my grades were good. I felt like I was on the verge of failure or humiliation at any given moment.

    Like you, I watched and listened to every word of Dr. Ford’s testimony a week ago, moved by her self control and obvious veracity. Like you, I understood Brett Kavanaugh’s calculated effort to gather around himself all the shared cultural assumptions about what someone like himself is entitled to, entitlements that will protect him against the truth. By rights, the power of Dr. Ford’s story should overcome the transparently false denials of Judge Kavanaugh, but I fear that less than twenty-four hours from now, the majority of Americans will have to swallow the travesty of his appointment to the SCOTUS.

    All week I have felt battered, gutted, outraged and teary, remembering not just being sexually assaulted myself in 1984 and feeling too ashamed to report it, but several other occasions when I felt abused, humiliated, dismissed, or patronized at the hands of men who should have been held accountable.

    All this is by way of saying thank you again, for framing the three options for telling the story of patriarchy as it operated in such mansions during the late 20th century. I am sure you will provoke many other readers to tell their stories, too.

    1. Anne Wiegard- we must have been close to being in the same class at Vassar. I was mugged, in Noyes circle (not raped, not terribly injured), and decided to get the heck out of there. In retrospect, I’m grateful to that mugger, as I escaped to the wilds (then) of Colorado, where the Mansion still existed, but in a diluted form. Thank you Helena Worthen , for this excellent piece, and you , too , Anne, for your letter. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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