'Absolute fearlessness': women take impeachment spotlight and speak truth as Trump fumes

Lauren Gambino in Washington

Hours into the final public hearing of the House’s historic impeachment inquiry on Thursday, the congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, needed the witness to verify a story she had heard about her.

Related: Trump suggests he wants to be impeached and says 'I want a trial' – live

Fiona Hill, the former top White House Russia expert, was on Capitol Hill to testify as part of the House intelligence committee’s investigation into whether Donald Trump abused his power to pressure a foreign government to help tarnish his domestic political rivals.

But Speier turned to Hill’s hardscrabble upbringing in County Durham, in the north-east of England. When Hill was 11 a schoolboy set her pigtails on fire during a test – was it true that Hill snuffed out the fire with her hands, and finished the test?

It was true, Hill said. But she insisted this was a cautionary tale – not a story of grace under literal fire. With a wry smile, she explained that afterward her mother gave her a “bowl haircut” resembling Richard III.

“Well,” Spier said, as the laughter died down, “I think it underscores the fact that you speak truth, that you are steely, and I truly respect that.”

Hill’s unflappable performance capped an extraordinary two weeks of public testimony, in which 12 witnesses testified during seven public hearings. Of those 12, four women came before the committee to share their crucial knowledge of the events that led to an impeachment inquiry threatening Trump’s presidency.

Their appearances were cheered from members of the public watching in the stately chambers and elsewhere by viewers and listeners around the world, for their competence and composure in the spotlight of an extraordinary moment in American history.

“What we saw, thanks to their incredible talent and composure, was a broadening of how we define leadership in the national security and foreign service community,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project. “It was a very proud moment for women.”

Marie Yovanovitch at last week’s deposition. Trump lashed out at Yovanovitch as she testified about the smear campaign waged against her.
Marie Yovanovitch at last week’s deposition. Trump lashed out at Yovanovitch as she testified about the smear campaign waged against her. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ben-Yehuda, who founded the Women’s Foreign Policy Network, said the response to Hill’s testimony in particular was overwhelming. Her social media news feeds filled with commentary – “everything from ‘I have a girl crush on her’ and ‘She’s so amazing [that] I’m printing out posters and taping her picture to the wall in my cubicle’.”

In addition to Hill, the House heard testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine; Jennifer Williams, special adviser on Europe and Russia for Vice-President Mike Pence; and Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

These women, veteran civil servants of what Trump has denigrated as a nefarious “deep state” working to undermine his presidency, told lawmakers they were compelled by a strong sense of duty to come forward, at times in defiance of White House orders not to cooperate.

Related: Fiona Hill rebukes conspiracy theory – and emerges as a heroine for our times

They are high-ranking and deeply credentialed experts and diplomats who have served presidents of both parties from offices in Washington and around the world. They are Ivy League-educated and eminently prepared, with meticulous notes and important correspondence.

And they are naturalized and native-born Americans who testified knowledgably and unapologetically at great financial cost and personal risk – and in the face of attacks from the president, and even death threats.

But they weren’t just coming forward now. They had raised concerns in real time. And on at least one occasion, Hill testified, her justified anger over the handling of Trump’s Ukraine policy was discounted as “emotional”.

“I hate to say it,” Hill said. “But often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often pushed on to emotional issues perhaps, or deflected on to other people.”

The hearings reflected the explosive gender dynamics of Trump’s presidency. His treatment of women – from his disparaging remarks about their appearance and behavior to the dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, all of which he has categorically denied – has been a central contention at the heart of his presidency, inspired global protests after his inauguration and helped to pave the way for the #MeToo movement.

Related: Trump resurfaces debunked theory Ukraine interfered in 2016 election

And so it came as little surprise when Trump lashed out at Yovanovitch as she testified about the smear campaign waged against her by the president’s allies that ultimately led to her dismissal.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump said. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”

Asked to respond, Yovanovitch said: “It’s very intimidating.”

Days later, in an interview with Fox & Friends on Friday, Trump attacked her again as a partisan who opposed his presidency.

“This was not an angel, this woman,” Trump said, adding that Republicans told him that had treated the ambassador kindly during the hearing because “she’s a woman, you have to be nice.”

In a tweet, Trump also dismissed Williams – “whoever that is” – as a Never Trumper, a claim she denied. Hill faced similar accusations. She testified that during her first year at the National Security Council, she was the target of right wing conspiracy theories who accused her of being an enemy of the president and a Democratic plant.

“There’s no doubt that Trump takes a special sort of glee in attacking women,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who teaches at Georgetown University, who knows Hill and Yovanovitch. “But here’s the moral of the story for me.”

Jennifer Williams, who was also attacked by Trump, on Capitol Hill.
Jennifer Williams, who was also attacked by Trump, on Capitol Hill. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

“Recall that when Trump first referred to Yovanovitch he called her simply ‘the woman,’” she continued. “Now see that that woman and the other women who were involved in this, not only do they have identities and knowledge and power but they have spoken out with the truth. We’ll see where that truth ends up taking him.”

It was not only the women who testified who figured prominently. From the House speaker who launched the investigation to the veteran civil servants who testified and the lawmakers who questioned them, women have played a central role at every phase of the impeachment proceedings.

“Since Pelosi has been speaker, the one person who seems most able to stand up literally and figuratively to Donald Trump has been a woman,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the non-partisan Center for American Women and Politics. “And I think what you witnessed in these last few weeks from the women testifying was that same kind of absolute clarity and fearlessness.”

A record number of women running for office helped Democrats take control of the House majority following the 2018 midterm elections, and made Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House. It wasn’t until a band of moderate, mostly female lawmakers, with military and national security backgrounds, announced their support for an impeachment investigation that Pelosi dropped her resistance and launched an inquiry. There is even a gender gap in support for impeachment, with more American women than men in favor of the House inquiry – and Trump’s removal from office.

Three Democratic women – Speier, Terri Sewell and Val Demings – sit on the panel and took high-profile turns interrogating the witnesses.

Related: Zelenskiy will emerge from Trump inquiry unscathed, says Ukraine PM

Yet it was New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the sole Republican woman on the committee, who drew the most attention, raising her profile during the last few weeks as a prominent and staunch defender of the president. Her repeated attempts to circumvent committee rules and speak out of turn gave conservatives an opening to accuse chairman Adam Schiff of “gagging the young lady from New York”.

“A new Republican Star is born,” Trump declared. “Great going Elise Stefanik!”

It was an unexpected turn for Stefanik, who has clashed with party leaders over her efforts to expand the number of Republican women in elected office. But it could put the 35-year-old lawmaker in contention for a coveted leadership role.

But her rise has also made her a target of the Democratic “resistance” to Trump. Her Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb, a consultant who lost handily to the congresswoman last November, said that she had raised more than $1m since last week.