They traveled to Washington to oppose a controversial appointment to the Supreme Court, determined to tell their own stories and discover the power in being heard.
When Sen. Susan Collins gave a speech Oct. 5 announcing her decision to support the nomination of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, Maine women were watching.
Samantha Paradis, 27, watched between patients at the family planning clinic in Belfast where she is a nurse practitioner student. Nacole Palmer, 40, watched in a conference room in Sen. Angus King’s office in Washington. Taylor Cray, 20, watched with her friends in a noodle restaurant in Bangor. Kali Bird Isis, 60, watched at home in Portland.
All of them had traveled more than 500 miles from Maine to the nation’s capital earlier that week, hoping to meet with Collins and ask her to vote against Kavanaugh. Some wanted to share personal experiences of sexual assault that were similar to the allegations against the nominee for America’s highest court. Most had experience with political action, from phone banking to protesting, but none had ever participated in a movement so personal.
Collins’ decision was a pivotal moment in the senator’s career, but it also had a profound impact on the lives of the women who had tried to get through to her in the days and hours before her speech. Their experience was a reminder that accusers can still be blamed, while powerful men can still be cast as victims. Even though the #MeToo movement has forced society to examine how women have been treated – and has led to some men being held accountable for their actions – the conversation is far from over.
But, if nothing else, more women have been willing to share their own stories.
“I think it makes me more confident in saying I’ve been sexually assaulted, because in the past I was reluctant to categorize it,” Cray said. “It was just something bad that happened to me. Now it’s something that I have a name for. I feel like this experience has really validated my own ability to understand that.”
The Mainers who traveled to Washington came home both energized to be part of a fight bigger than themselves and discouraged that their voices did not sway their senator’s vote.
“I was captured on the TV camera crying, and that’s what’s been played on news channels across the state,” Palmer said. “I think I was sad for about five minutes, and then I was furious.”
A CHANCE? ‘I HAD TO TRY’
In the days before the vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, protesters flooded into Washington from across the country. Many of them were women from states with senators who were considered key swing votes – Arizona, Alaska and Maine.
Kendall Dienno, 25, had been in awe when her Portland neighbor went to the capital to demonstrate during the week that Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were teenagers. But she hesitated when her neighbor told her about another bus of Maine women bound for Washington. She would have to reschedule plans with a friend, and the trip sounded exhausting.
Then she watched a video of President Trump mocking Ford at a rally. She thought about her own experience of sexual assault when she was 16 years old, and she signed up for the bus.
“It was so hard because it’s so invalidating not only to Dr. Ford’s experience but to anyone’s experience who has been assaulted,” Dienno said. “I was reminded of multiple people saying: ‘She’s making it up. She’s exaggerating. She just changed her mind and regrets doing that with him.’ ”
Also on the bus was April Caricchio from South Portland. Now 55, Caricchio said she spent years focusing on her family as a single parent. Now that her children are grown, she said she is able to be more active in local causes, even running for a City Council seat.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I could get up and go,” she said. “This was a time when I thought, I’m going to get up and go.”
Dienno and Caricchio were among two dozen women who rode a bus through the night to arrive in Washington at 7 a.m. on Oct. 4. During a whirlwind 12 hours there, the group tried to meet with Collins, but only got as far as talking to one of her staff members for about 45 minutes.
Palmer, a classical singer who lives in Bowdoin, spoke during that meeting. But when the rest of the travelers were boarding the bus for the return trip to Portland at the end of the day, she and a couple of others decided to stay. She wanted to keep trying to see the senator in person.
“If there was a chance that we could go talk to Sen. Collins, to speak to her, then I had to try and do that,” Palmer said.
Palmer did not get that chance.
‘NOT AS HOPEFUL’
Neither did Paradis, who woke up at 3 a.m. Oct. 4 for a flight to Washington. As the mayor of Belfast, she was one of 16 elected women from Maine who traveled to the capital that day. Instead of meeting with Collins, who spent hours that day reading the FBI’s reports of its investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh, the group talked to a staff member in her office.
Paradis, who grew up in Aroostook County like Collins, told her own story of sexual assault as a teenager. She said she did not believe a report would be taken seriously because she had seen domestic violence brushed off in the past. But at the end of the day, she felt discouraged in part because Collins had not met with them herself.
“I was not as hopeful as when I left Maine,” Paradis said.
Bird Isis, who traveled with the bus group, said she also left Washington not believing that Collins would vote against Kavanaugh. But she felt hopeful in other ways. While she was studying at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, Bird Isis wrote a collection of poems in recent years about the sexual abuse she experienced by her father when she was a child. She said she has been healing for more than 40 years, and when she looked around at the women telling their own stories at the Hart Senate Office Building and on the steps of the Supreme Court, she felt inspired.
“If you had asked me 20 years ago – 20 short years ago – if I believed that day was coming, I would have said no,” she said.
‘I’M FEELING DISILLUSIONED’
For some women who had personal experiences with sexual abuse or assault, the debate about Kavanaugh’s nomination changed their perspectives on their own pasts.
Cray had publicly shared her experience with sexual assault only once before, when she spoke at a small event on her campus at the University of Maine in Orono. Last week, she called her father and told him her story for the first time. The next day, she traveled with the help of Planned Parenthood to Washington, where she spoke to hundreds of people at an evening vigil and to a Collins staffer the following day.
“This is not just my story,” said Cray, who is from Readfield. “This is the story of so many people.”
Dienno said the experience has made her more willing to share her own story with other people, although that has a downside, too. It has brought her back to that day nearly 10 years ago and she’s had nightmares about the boy who assaulted her. When she got home from Washington, she said she needed to disconnect from the news and rest.
“I’m feeling disillusioned,” she said. “This whole process has failed us. This past week especially, I’ve actually been thinking about backing off a little bit, because this has been so damaging to my mental health and where I thought I was with respect to my own trauma.”
But she recalled a moment from Washington, when she was standing on a street corner with other Mainers in the closing hours of the trip. Three women in their work clothes emerged from an office building. They made a beeline for Dienno and her group, sunburned and dressed in black from an afternoon rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. They asked, “Where are we going?” Another woman helped them search online for an evening protest. Dienno made her way back to the bus, too tired to join but gratified that other women were ready to pick up where she left off.
“My shift is done,” she remembered thinking.
‘BUT NOW, I’M READY’
The Mainers who traveled to Washington have processed their disappointment with Collins’ decision differently, and their plans for the future are varied.
For some, the focus turned to the midterm elections, now less than a month away.
Republican leaders have cast the protesters as a mob, a characterization that they hope will energize their voters just weeks before they go to the polls. And some conservative candidates are seeing a boost in support from people upset by the way Kavanaugh was treated.
Palmer returned from Washington to attend an organizing event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills. She also is participating in Emerge Maine, a program that trains women to run for office, and wants to launch her own campaign.
As she watched the backlash to the nomination process, Palmer feared that women who came forward as sexual assault survivors would be categorically dismissed. One in three women in the United States experiences some kind of sexual violence in her lifetime, according to data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, but Palmer said she does not want women to be seen only through that lens.
“I think that the people who want to preserve their power want to find as many ways as possible to dismiss the voices that are speaking out, and one of the ways to do that is to point to the fact that many of the protesters were sexual assault survivors and say, well, they’re only saying this because they’re sexual assault survivors,” Palmer said. “I think it does a disservice to women and to survivors to diminish all that they are to just being a survivor.”
Caricchio spent a few days near the water in South Bristol, relaxing but also making plans for the last weeks of her local City Council race in South Portland. At least one person from the bus told Caricchio she wanted to volunteer on her campaign.
“Protesting and marching has a place, but it hasn’t seemed to be the most effective action,” she said. “My focus is that we’ve got to get people in powerful offices that are going to recognize what we’re up against.”
For Dienno, the experience motivated her to learn more about her new home in Portland. Once she feels rested, she talked about volunteering at a local soup kitchen and maybe even participating in a training program like Emerge Maine someday.
“It’s so easy to feel trampled upon by a lot of this,” Dienno said. “Just knowing that it’s OK to tap out for a little bit, that’s what I’ve been doing these last few days. I’m going to bounce back.”
Bird Isis, who works as a therapist, said she kept her private practice to a minimum as she studied to become a chaplain. But she wants to expand it again and launch a group for sexual abuse victims.
“It’s been years since I’ve run groups specifically for survivors,” she said. “But now, I’m ready.”
Paradis went back to Belfast. She went to her shifts at the family planning clinic and at the local hospital. She went to a public hearing for the city. She prepared for speaking engagements across the state. And that day-to-day work, she said, helps her move forward.
“What I’ve experienced in politics in the last year is that change happens when it’s meant to happen,” Paradis said. “Sometimes it’s incremental. Sometimes it’s all at once.”