Maria Gallagher, a 23-year-old woman from New York, had never told anyone about the time she was sexually assaulted before she blurted it out to a United States senator, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona, with millions watching on live national television.
During a remarkable, emotional three-minute encounter at the door of a Capitol Hill elevator, Gallagher — a young woman who'd never protested anything before last week's showdown over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and never spoken with an elected official before — didn't just find the courage and the voice to tell her story. In doing so, she became the vessel for the rage that millions of American women had carried after watching the judge testify the day before. Gallagher's voice was infused with the raw emotion that so many women had long felt compelled to repress.
"Don't look away from me," Gallagher, whose face could not be seen on camera but whose rising emotion demanded to be heard, told the GOP senator in the Friday morning encounter's most powerful moment. Flake appeared stunned, looking down and only muttering "thank you" in response.
"Look at me and tell me that it doesn't matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies," said Gallagher, tearful, her voice now a crescendo, building upon the also powerful but more measured words of a veteran activist and Colombian immigrant, Ana Maria Archila, who had initiated the confrontation with Flake.
It was the elevator pitch that altered the trajectory of American history. The TV cameras had all been focused on Flake because just a few moments earlier the Arizonan — a conservative who's leaving the Senate after clashing verbally (but not on policy) with President Trump — had announced he would vote for Kavanaugh after hearing the judge's story and that of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who said the judge is "the boy who sexually assaulted me" when both were teens in 1982.
But not long after the encounter, as Flake sat around a semi-circle with 20 other senators about to vote to send Kavanaugh's embattled nomination to the full Senate, the TV cameras again panned his way, and his face was white, as if he'd just seen a ghost. I'd only once seen anything like it in politics, and that wasn't in real life but in a Hollywood movie — the scene in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Claude Rains' once-idealistic-now-corrupted senator simmers with guilt as he's exposed by Jimmy Stewart's hoarse filibuster.
What happened on Friday lacked the matinee theatrics of Rains' "Expel me, not him!" monologue in the film, but it was also more powerful because it was real. The rattled Flake was pulled out of the room by his close friend from the Democratic side of the committee table, Sen. Chris Coons, and returned to say that while he would still vote Kavanaugh out of committee, any final vote was contingent on an FBI probe of allegations against the judge and a delay of at least one week.
The elevator moment has been rehashed countless times in the last 48 hours, but it's hard to stop thinking about it because it speaks so much to the moral quandary that so many people have expressed, in one form or another, over the last two years: In a moment when American democracy seems to be circling the drain, how could any one individual voice — one, lonely voice — possibly make a difference?
Especially when America is led by a president who governs as an autocrat despite 3 million fewer votes than the woman he was running against, and a Congress which, thanks to gerrymandering in the House and the outsized clout of small rural states in the Senate, also fails to represent the will of the people. The race to ram through the most unpopular modern Supreme Court nominee in Kavanaugh is testament to that feeling of helplessness.
That was only reinforced last Thursday by Kavanaugh's bombastic and belligerent performance before the Senate committee. To the judge's defenders, his anger was the righteous indignation of the falsely accused, and — who knows? — maybe this week's FBI ridiculously limited investigation will find the piece of evidence that proves him right.
But separate and apart from the truth of 36 years ago is the indisputable fact that Kavanaugh, in the fall of 2018, is also furious that anyone dare challenge a system of privilege and entitlement for certain kinds of people who come from the right families and go to the right schools, and who are used to using their power to get away with things — and are very much not used to common people challenging that authority.
The courage of Gallagher and Archila in confronting a powerful U.S. senator on his own turf, and in saying things on live national television that before Friday they'd not wanted to tell even their own parents, was an epic event — yet it was not an isolated incident.
The story of brave, once-anonymous citizens taking risks, speaking out and altering the seemingly unbendable course of history starts with Dr. Ford, who frequently said it was her sense of civic duty that led her to take action to inform America about Kavanaugh's moral fitness — or, more appropriately, lack of it — for sitting on America's highest court. There can be no doubt that her decision — which came with no personal upside beyond her unshakable belief that she is speaking the truth — offered an adrenaline shot of bravery to others like Gallagher.
But Gallagher and Archila were hardly the end of the story, either, but the leading edge of a tidal wave of truth. The flood of callers, including a 76-year-old woman from Missouri, who overwhelmed a live call-in show on C-SPAN with their own vivid revelations of the times they were sexually assaulted. The 83-year-old New Jersey legislator who went public with the story of how she was groped. Each truth-teller buoyed by the strength of the one who came before.
This last week has in many ways echoed the famous words of the Berkeley student activist Mario Savio when he said in 1964 that "[t]here's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part! … And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you've got to make it stop!" Fifty-four years later, women like Dr. Ford, Gallagher and Archila are throwing themselves in front of the runaway train that is the Kavanaugh confirmation, armed with little but their words.
Will it be enough, though? This weekend's disconcerting news that the White House is significantly constricting the FBI probe that Flake and other key senators asked for on Friday is one more sign that the established order is in a testosterone-fueled rush to preserve the patriarchy and is terrified of the one thing that could derail it: Honesty. For three glorious minutes on Friday, the truth was liberating for Gallagher.
"It is frustrating and something that needs to change," she told the Daily Beast, "and I think things like this are hopefully a step in the right direction for our country."
That step also answered the question that has hovered over America like a cloud for nearly 23 months. Your voice can make a difference. If you're still sitting on the sidelines, what are you waiting for?