The once world-renowned Olympic doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar, was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for decades-long sexual abuse of more than 160 women, many of them children. Larry Nassar was repeatedly hired, put in a position of power, and continuously committed sex crimes against women as young as 15. Sentenced by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, Nassar wasn’t going to be given any leniency. In this unprecedented case, Judge Aquilina gave every victim the chance to speak at the sentencing -- 156 women did so over the course of seven days.
This is what it looks like to support sexual abuse victims. This is what it looks like when a woman’s voice is in a position of power and leadership. This is what it looks like when there is accountability. Accountability is exactly what men in positions of power, men like Donald Trump, have skirted for far too long. He’s just one example, of course, in accounts far too numerous to list of women being silenced in ways great and small in every part of our society. What would it look like if Trump had to face Judge Aquilina, along with the 19 women who have accused the President of the United States of sexual misconduct? We hope to get to that day.
Nassar had to face his victims in court, though this time, the women held the power. While so many survivors showed up to speak, there were more who could not. But as a sisterhood, as a display of strength, the women who did speak also did so for those who could not. Judge Aquilina punctuated that support and commented after each woman came forward to address Nassar.
Rachael DenHollander, a gymnast whose abuse from Nassar began when she was 15, was the first to file charges and the last to speak in court. Her words should be taken in, as are the words of every one of the other 155 women who spoke as well. “How much is a little girl worth?” DenHollander asked, “How much is a young woman worth?” She pointed out Nassar’s manipulative mindset and said he deserves the “fullest weight of the law … children are worth everything …. worth the maximum sentence.”
Judge Aquilina addressed DenHollander after her statements. “I want you to know that your words are the right words -- you didn't just build a file, you built an army of survivors and you are a five-star general. … Your demands for accountability and change are happening. Your words, your army, tells the world that these girls ... are worth something, that they have a voice. … You started a tidal wave. You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you. You are the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom."
DenHollander received a standing ovation from those in the room. It is in the power of this woman, of every woman who spoke, that we are able to create a change, see justice, tip the balance of power into a fair position. This is about believing women, and believing in women. Crimes against women are underreported and victim blaming and shaming are rampant. But it wasn’t in this courtroom. It wasn’t with Judge Aquilina on the bench.
To gymnast Bailey Lorencen Judge Aquilina said, “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you. Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.’ Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”
She used words like “heroine” and “superhero,” when describing the survivors, letting them know that they are “strong and brave.” She encouraged them to “Leave your pain here … and go out and do your magnificent things.”
The sentencing also brought out the need for accountability on all levels. These young women should have been better protected from a predator like Nassar.
Nassar had the audacity to complain to Judge Aquilina by letter saying how hearing his victim’s statements was causing him emotional distress. Her Honor didn’t hold back. To Nassar she said, “Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.”
Judge Aquilina is part of an underrepresented group of women -- there are currently a little over 30 percent of women sitting in judge seats in the state courts. At the federal court level, 36 percent of judges are female. However, when it comes to the courts of appeal, women are 15 percent of the judges on the Third Circuit, 20 percent on the Eighth Circuit, and 25 percent on the Tenth Circuit. Six district courts in America have never had a female judge.
And it’s not for a lack of qualified women -- women account for approximately 50 percent of students in law school. We have more work to do, an uphill battle, but we are ready.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is currently one of three women serving on the nine-person Supreme Court, articulated it perfectly. She said, “People ask me sometimes, when -- when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.”
There will be enough women who are judges when there are more women judges. There will be enough women in power when there are more women in power. There will be more equality when we helping each other achieve equality.
Ginsburg and Aquilina are helping to further the narrative on women’s equality. We shouldn’t be viewed solely as victims; we are survivors, and we can and will thrive despite injustices against us. And it is all about the “us.” This is exactly the kind of advocacy we need. This is letting women know that we matter and allowing survivors to feel empowered, to take their power back. This is what happens when women join together, when we support each other; we can foster justice. Jessica Bennett, the author of Feminist Fight Club, said: “The only thing more powerful than a self confident woman is an army of them.”
The 156 women who spoke in Judge Aquilina’s courtroom are part of that army. The 19 women who accused Trump of sexual assault are in that army. The women who are a part of the #MeToo movement are in that army. The women empowered to run for office on every level are in that army. And every man, woman, and gender non-conforming or identifying person who stands with women are part of that army, too. Judge Aquilina has helped to punctuate our power, our voice, our experiences, our need for justice. And we are marching onward.