Outspoken and unconventional, these brazen women are beacons of change who refuse to conform, inspiring people around the world to fight for what they believe in. Here, Popular Democracy’s Ana Maria Archila and 23-year-old Maria Gallagher open up about confronting Senator Jeff Flake during Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing—and why it’s so important that we start looking at sexual assault survivors—for our 2018 #WomenWhoDare conversation series.

Maria Gallagher: I got to the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building at 7 a.m. before the doors opened, because I was nervous I was going to be late. I’m always nervous I’m going to be late. I wasn’t interested in civil disobedience because I had to be at work by 1 p.m. for a meeting, so I couldn’t get arrested. I was in a hallway for a little while, and then got kicked out of the hallway. Someone said “go to Jeff Flake’s office and wait outside, he’s one of the major swing votes.” They said to bring a friend, but I was there by myself so I went in search of a friend. And I found you! I don’t think we introduced ourselves. I just said “I’m going to stand outside of Jeff Flake’s office, I don’t know who to go with, do you want to come?” It seemed like you knew where you were going, so I followed. Later, we were like “hello, nice to meet you” [laughs].

Ana Maria Archila: I had been one of the organizers of the protests for months. My organization [The Center for Popular Democracy] has been using these tactics of trying to take our stories to the senators, either by trying to find them in the hallways or in the elevators, or going to their offices. Most of the time they’re not there so we tell stories until the police come. They arrest some of us, or they make us move. The morning of the Judiciary Committee vote, I was supposed to head back home. I had assumed we were losing the vote. There was a fair amount of disorganization that morning, so when you said “let’s go to Flake’s office,” I thought, well, we have half an hour left before the vote, it’s a perfectly good use of our time and I know how to navigate the hallways and the tunnels that connect the senate building. I thought I would just be basically dropping you off at Flake’s office. On the way to his office, you were asking me questions about “how do you talk to him?” Asking, “can I just call him a jerk?” [laughs]. I said don’t call him a jerk, but if we see him— and we probably won’t see him—tell him why you’re here and speak from your heart.

Then we stood in front of his office for half an hour. We saw some reporters there, which made me think that Senator Flake might be in his office. I had, a few days before, been in front of his office with hundreds of people. At that point, so many people had been telling stories and it’s one of these things where you witness someone do something so painful and so courageous, that it’s infectious. It’s contagious, the courage that people display, and you want to participate in it. In a moment of total improvisation, I told my story of sexual abuse in front of Senator Flake’s office. I didn’t say very much, but I told the contours, and it was very painful, and I was freaked out that my parents would find out. That was a few days before the Judiciary Committee vote, and then that morning, I don’t know when we saw him, the first thing I wanted to say to him was “I was in your office just a few days ago, telling my story, and I told you about it because I recognize myself in Dr. Ford,” and that’s how we got going.

Maria: I had never said the term “sexually assaulted” out loud. In my therapy appointments, I called it “the not good thing that happened to me,” because I just wasn’t able to admit that this was what happened to me. It felt like, to me, everyone consistently looks away from these survivors because it’s so ugly and it’s so painful to look at them, and it’s so easy for these people in power to look away from it, to not see the personal impact, and to generalize it. That’s why I got so frustrated that [Flake] was physically looking away from us in a way that I had felt I had been looked away from after my assault.

I knew friends who had been looked away from, and in the broader sense, that’s how I felt Dr. Blasey Ford was [treated]. Everyone looked at her, listened to her, and turned away—they just completely looked away from all of her pain and suffering because they didn’t want to confront it. That’s literally what [Flake] was doing right in front of me, and I just got so frustrated from the culmination of this happening to so many people I know, and seeing it happen to Dr. Blasey Ford, that’s why I told him to look at me. Because I wanted him to see the consequences of his actions and see the pain of what this would mean for so many women—to actually look at it and face it.

Ana Maria: With those words you really captured what all of us are doing, with our stories. We’re creating a kind of mirror. When you tell your story, I feel like I see myself in you, and when we tell our stories, the country sees itself in that picture. It’s both painful and beautiful, and it was a tremendous opportunity for Senator Flake in that moment, for other senators, to signal that they wouldn’t just affirm the culture that enables sexual violence and that keeps looking away, but that they would step into the opportunity to lead.

I’ve thought a lot about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, and his letter to his son. He talks about how you can’t understand slavery, or any kind of injustice by thinking of it as something that happens to a mass of people, or something done by a mass of people. You have to understand that it’s something as a lived experience of one person—like what did she feel like in the morning? Whose shoulder did she cry on? What made her smile? What made her angry? What was it like at the end of the day when she didn’t have her children?

You have to imagine those questions and that’s how you enter a collective experience. What Dr. Ford was doing was so powerful. She was allowing the country to see these realities through her story, and you have to think, who was she before the hand on the mouth or the laughter in that room, and who was she after? It’s such a powerful way to look at the system of patriarchy that we live in.

Maria: I think it’s easy to generalize. You hear the statistics of “one in four women.” When you’re sitting in a large room of women, statistically, most of us have had some sort of non-consensual sexual experience, but when it’s treated as such a shameful secret that nobody ever talks about, it’s hard to bring those human faces to that statistic. And it’s easy to state it as a statistic without any emotion behind it, when in reality it’s such a painful experience that so many people, not just women, experience and shouldn’t experience.

Ana Maria: I have lived with this secret for 30 years, and I don’t know if I would have released it had it not been for these women. I don’t know that I would have wanted my parents to feel the pain, to feel responsible.

Maria: I don’t know if I would. For me, it was the overwhelming emotion I felt in the years after my assault—I was so ashamed that I let it happen to me. I felt so taken advantage of in the most intimate way, and when you’re so ashamed of something, it makes it that much harder to speak about it. If I was just angry or if I was just sad, I think I would’ve spoken about it more, but the national conversation and the culture that makes it such a shameful experience; that’s the biggest thing that needs to change. Understanding that shame shouldn’t be the primary emotion because that’s what makes it this deep, guarded secret—and that’s what makes it tear you apart from the inside.

Coming to terms with the fact that I was sexually assaulted and being able to say it in a conversation without feeling intense anxiety shows the power of words. It’s freeing. Once it becomes a conversation that people are less ashamed and scared to have, that’s when you can start moving onto deeper things of why women’s bodies are treated like this, why consent is still treated as “no means try harder,” instead of “no means no.” Once you start being able to have these kinds of conversations that are really hard, the more they’re normalized, the more power you feel as you have them. Keeping it as such a secret just destroys you. Once you say it, and you deal with it, and you work towards understanding and being able to cope with what happened to you, then it has less of a power over you. I think the term sexual assault always had such a power over me, and now I don’t feel that it does anymore. Speaking to my family and speaking to friends and loved ones and my therapist and finally being able to admit to myself that this is what happened to me—I wouldn’t have been able to truly move on from the experience if I never said those words out loud.

Ana Maria: I think saying it in these moments has a liberatory effect. It feels like the pain is shared, the shame is not there, or it evaporates. My experience was as a child, so I had tucked it away—way back in the deepest corner. It was a thing I didn’t want to be defined by, so I still find myself struggling to some extent with this idea: that this is the thing that most people know about me. The other day, I realized that my children will also know about this, but at least they’ll know about this as a source of power for me and not a source of sadness. I find myself being surprised at the extent to which this is defining my existence publicly.

Maria: I’ve always really liked to be defined as being nice, and before this, if people talked about me, they would just say I was funny and nice and bubbly. I have historically not liked confrontation, which is hard to believe. I agree that just realizing the power that came with telling someone the truth and holding them accountable in that moment was really powerful—it makes me feel less like I have to be known as nice and funny. I can be known as something else.

But it is definitely surprising to know that this is now what most people know about me, especially because it had been such a secret. It’s this thing that people who I’ll never meet know about me, which is wild. I really thought I had dealt with it very well. I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had on my life until I started talking about it, and moving on from it. Not the national TV aspect, but talking about it within my family and people I love afterwards. Right now, I feel like it’s something that defines me, but as I continue in my life, it will have less of a hold on me.

Ana Maria: I didn’t know I could yell like that. That moment of just releasing the anger and doing it with a man who has been vested with so much power in our country, and then watching that power melt away in front of my eyes was really great. I do not have patience for stupid men anymore. Stupid questions are not to be entertained. I’ve been doing this work for a long time. My work has not been about sexual violence, but it has been about power and democracy. There are so many women that participated in the action around Kavanaugh, who just walked out of there feeling totally transformed; their ability to put their foot down. And so many little girls who watched were transformed by watching them be powerful.

I find it so hilarious that all these senators are throwing tantrums about being confronted when women find them in the hallways, in the airport, in the elevators. I think that we’re living through a moment of great frustration, and women’s secret rage is right here—and so is men’s fear and inability to be confronted. Politicians are so practiced at hiding and not talking to people. They’re always too busy to listen, they’re always performing and not really present. It’s really at the essence of why our democracy’s so broken: they are never forced to do what you asked Flake to do—to look at you and not look away, and answer your question again and again. I’m thrilled that people are not going to be fine with their politicians being too busy to talk to them, and that everywhere women are showing up in offices, not being nice, not asking for a meeting, not waiting until they have time. I think this disrupting of the flow is really powerful and we need to do it more and more.

Maria: Like I said earlier, it’s so easy for so many people to look away—and it’s not just politicians, it’s universities that don’t expel students, it’s family members or therapists, or anybody who looks away because it’s too hard to look at the problem. But that’s the point. If something’s broken, you have to look at it, see that it’s broken. Even if it doesn’t look good, you have to figure out how to fix it. That’s why these uncomfortable and awkward and hard interactions are so important—not always at this broad scale of confronting politicians, but just having conversations with significant others and talking about what consent looks like in your relationship, having conversations with your parents about the way they talk about women. For me it’s realizing the privileges I’ve been afforded as a white woman and realizing how, moving forward, I can include other people in this narrative.

That’s an uncomfortable thing to realize. Your own privilege is a hard thing to look at, but if you don’t look at it, and you don’t confront it, you can never move forward collectively towards something being fixed. That’s the power of this moment, all of these people in power have the opportunity to look and see what’s broken, and try and work together to fix it. And now people aren’t letting you look away from it—they’re making you look at what’s broken.

Ana Maria: This whole Kavanaugh moment really shows how dangerous it actually is to keep allowing men to be the ones who speak for the rest of us. Men in power, especially white men in power, are for the most part not able to sit with their privilege and understand it.

Maria: It’s on every side of the aisle.

Ana Maria: Across the board, yes. So many women led this fight from day one around Kavanaugh, before we knew that he had attempted to rape Dr. Ford. Women were leading this fight because of what was at stake: our ability to control our bodies, health care, the rights of immigrant families, LGBQT families. The evidence is there that men in power are unable to lead in this moment. Flake is a perfect example. They will follow their party boss, they will follow Trump, but they won’t necessarily follow the people they represent.

For women, we have an opportunity to choose how we lead and how we follow. It’s uncomfortable to point at the fact that white women actually voted for Trump in great numbers, affirming the culture that he represents of men grabbing us, and at the same time many white women showed up and put their bodies on the line and told their stories. It would serve us all well to look at women of color who, everyday, have been practicing how to fight power in a structure that is constantly putting us down. In the racist patriarchal culture.

The reason why we say follow the leadership of women of color is because women of color are very practiced at leading and finding power and truth in a system that’s incredibly oppressive. When I’m in a room with black women, I just understand so much more every time, and learn so much more. We can advance faster towards freedom. It’s lofty, but it’s real.

Maria: What you said about listening is what everyone needs to do: just sit down and listen. Especially listen to people who have not had the same experiences as you and learn from them. Don’t see these conversations as attacks on you, but more as a growth opportunity for confronting your own internal bias—which we all have—and realizing the best way forward is to keep listening and learn how to be an ally. Don’t elbow your way to the front of the line because your voice is louder. Stand with everybody else, and listen to everyone’s stories, and elevate everyone at the same pace. Holding on to what you’ve always believed is a way to get stuck, instead of progressing.

People have reached out to me from all walks of life, sharing their stories. I’ve had a lot of conversations with men actually. I think it’s partly because I’m young, so a lot of older people have seen me in their children. No-one wants to see their child in pain, and seeing a younger woman clearly in distress hit home for a lot of people. Hearing that these hard conversations have been happening between parents and children makes me feel like this was worth it. Hearing men reach out to me and tell me “I’ve never had this conversation with my significant other, but I thought it was really important for us to talk about our relationship,” and dads reaching out to me saying “I’m so sorry this happened to you, but I’ve spoken to my child in a way I’ve never spoken to them before and it was so important” makes me feel that men are finally taking a second to listen. You could hear the pain in Dr. Blasey Ford’s voice, you could hear it in me, and in you, when we spoke. That has been really powerful for me to feel like we are moving forward.

Ana Maria: You know, as an organizer, some people were asking me “how did you start getting so many survivors to show up?” and I was like “we were there all long, you just didn’t know.” I think that has been a revelation to a lot of people. People have realized that they didn’t know how many people in their lives have experienced sexual violence of some form. And also how generous it was for people to share their truth—that’s the other thing that I’ve heard a lot, a sense of gratitude towards all the women who shared. That has been transformative for people.

Maria: It’s hard. People don’t realize how hard it is to talk about these things until you start doing it. So when people say “that was a fun thing that you did,” or “that must have been cool to be on TV,” well, it was a painful experience to recount and every time you recount it it’s painful. It’s opening up a wound. Yet people have found an opportunity to belittle, as opposed to understanding how painful those kinds of recollections are.

The “boys will be boys mentality” is normalizing violence—it teaches boys that they have to be these tough men who can’t be in touch with their emotions. It teaches women that if a boy is mean to you, he likes you; that if you go home with a guy, he is entitled to your body. This idea isn’t going to change until we think about why we are teaching little boys this. Why is consent not mandatory in all sexual encounters? Why are you not looking for someone to enthusiastically say yes?

You know when you have a little kid and they say “But why?” It’s so frustrating because you can’t always answer their question—and that’s the best thing to say to people who use the “boys will be boys” line: “but why? Explain yourself.” Instead of lecturing someone, get them to think inwardly and ask, why do I believe this? Why is this the way our culture is founded? If you can confront it and think about it, you can move forward. That’s the most powerful thing.

Ana Maria: I’ve been asked a lot from detractors the question of “aren’t you worried about our sons? What if they get accused?” And my answer is yes, I am worried about our sons; what if they get accused of something they did? What I’ve learned by being a parent is that all of us are born with freedom in our hearts, we really are. How amazing would it be to be affirmed to ask consent and hear yes? We don’t allow boys that by forcing them to be tough, to be withdrawn, to mute their emotions, their expressions—because then their brilliance and shine is dulled as well. I want to imagine that we want to keep boys and girls, and everyone in the spectrum, shining. I see my role as a parent as primarily the guardian of my kids’ freedom.

The detractors… I think that we are their worst nightmare. We’re these women who are yelling at a man in power, and demanding that he answer our questions, and forcing him to look us in the eye—not taking “thank you” as an answer, and not letting him leave. That is their worst nightmare, and the detractors have shown their anger. We both have gotten pretty angry, graphic messages from angry men. For the most part, they’re wasting their time because I do not have the energy or the desire, or the time to actually look at those things.

Trump made an effort to distract people by sending out tweets saying we were paid protestors, which obviously is a lie. But I’ve used it as an opportunity to explain how social change happens in this country. I have devoted my entire adult life to organizations where regular people who do not have money and do not have power can find community, can build power together, and can make their voices heard. People’s organizations have been important in every social change process in this country, and everywhere else.

Maria: You’re so cool!

Ana Maria: [Laughs] I am so proud to be able to talk about the role that organizations play and the fact that I lead one of them and that I will continue to do that, even if Trump sends a tweet about it.

Maria: People talking about it being paid, and just accepting that as fact, is so dismissive and belittling of something that’s so painful; which is really hurtful because I’m a person who’s just trying to help. Feeling dismissed by all of these people and feeling that they could explain away our pain is continuing the idea that it’s so easy to look away and explain it away, as opposed to actually looking at it and doing something about this horrible experience that has united so many people in pain.

Ana Maria: I think that if it had been just the two of us in an elevator, it would not have had any effect. I think it was the fact that thousands of women were telling their stories, and people who were protesting inside the walls of Congress were having this contagious display of courage—that’s what added up to the moment. I think what we did very powerfully was force Flake to think about people he loved, and forced him to connect with us. It was like demanding connection both in the moment with us, but also asking him to imagine the people he loves, and the message he was sending them and the message he was sending women.

I was shocked when I heard that he had changed course, but I also realized this was buying us time. We were swimming upstream, and I was very worried about the FBI investigation for several reasons. I worried about a dynamic where the country was basically saying, well if the FBI says yes, then this guy is fine and the country looks away yet again. I wanted the story to be about people demanding their politicians to think about the message they’re sending to the country, and not reducing the power to the FBI investigation. Of course, it proved to be an investigation that wasn’t real. I felt like Flake played the country.

Maria: I would say initially I was flabbergasted [that Flake asked for an investigation], and agree that it was the culmination of so many women calling and texting and writing their senators and showing up and telling their stories… we were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. But even in a moment of such pain, I think it injected hope into a time where it’s really easy to feel hopeless, like, why would I even say what happened to me because they’re just going to ignore it. Which is how I was feeling. I felt like nothing mattered. But even Flake taking a minute to think about it and ask for an FBI investigation injected a sense of how powerful a democracy is—that we the people have a voice. That’s why people keep showing up. It made me remember that fighting for what’s right is worth it, and even just in that moment, even if the moment doesn’t last that long, that moment is all you need to keep going. I found it to be hopeful.

Ana Maria: I think you’re totally right. That’s so true, that people felt riveted and hopeful and found their aspirational selves in this. So many more people showed up the days following our encounter in the elevator, and in some ways, yes we lost a fight on the nomination of Kavanaugh, but the debate—who’s right and who’s wrong—I actually think we won. The conclusion was these men, and Susan Collins, they will be remembered as the ones who installed in the Supreme Court the guy who attempted to rape Dr. Blasey Ford. And the outrage that was displayed on the day of the Senate vote was so powerful. Again, courage is contagious, and it’s this idea that democracy belongs to us—that we are going to bring democracy alive in the hallways, in the coffee shops, in the airports, in the elevators, we’re going to make it ours.

Maria: It’s like a light in the darkness.

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