We all have those moments we can point to where we’ve been silenced by men. Either because we were literally told to “Sit down and shut up,” or because we were more subtly told to do so — ignored in meetings, not called upon for input or, worse, told our ideas weren’t good, only to later hear them declared “brilliant” when those same thoughts were voiced by a man.
Though the silencing of my voice after a 13-hour filibuster of a sweeping anti-abortion bill in the Texas Senate is a well-known incident, it was a different experience I had there that sticks with me just as vividly. In my first session as a Texas state senator, while debating a parliamentary ruling before the Lieutenant Governor and the Parliamentarian, I was essentially told to shut up by the male senator I was debating. I will never forget that moment as he stood behind me, his breath literally hot against the back of my neck, as he growled out the words “Don’t talk to me like that, Little Lady….” And I knew. I knew he wasn’t just angry because I was getting the better of him in a debate. It was that I was a woman who was getting the better of him in a debate.
That misogynistic ritual was, of course, on full display this week when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked an arcane and rarely used rule to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren during debate over whether Sen. Jeff Sessions should be confirmed as U.S. Attorney General. The point Sen. Warren was making, through the reading of a letter written by civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, was a valid one — that she believed Sen. Sessions had demonstrated a history of depriving the voting rights of people of color and therefore, was an inappropriate choice to fill the attorney general role. Problem was, it was an articulate, intelligent woman making the point and making it forcefully.
Public reaction to the silencing of Warren was swift and, appropriately, relentless. Because we all understood what we’d seen. As a woman, Warren was basically being told to “Sit down and shut up.” It wasn’t what she was saying nearly so much as the fact that she was a woman saying it, that irked McConnell and his colleagues as they voted to silence her.
Driving this point home even further, after the vote to silence her, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Tom Udall read Mrs. King’s letter in its entirety without facing any objection. Sexism? Misogyny? You be the judge.
The events of this week offered us a potent reminder that, we too, have the capacity to persist through our greatest challenges. Importantly, we’ve re-centered ourselves around the idea that we will not be silenced.
This is a story we women know all too well. And, if you’re like me, you’ve resorted to trying to twist yourself into the least offensive form possible when pressing a point, deciding, wrongly, that perhaps you should take responsibility for not upsetting the egos of the men around you. You’ve been self-effacing. You’ve made sure to compliment the ideas of the men around you first. You’ve waited until everyone else has spoken before you dare to speak up. You’ve spent time thinking about your word choice, working hard to find the least bellicose way of making your point.
Well, this week, I think we collectively uttered a much needed, “Screw That.”
Rather than eschewing McConnell’s explanation for his reprimand of Warren, we embraced it! And how glorious it was to see the meme’s noting moments in history when women were “warned,” were “given an explanation,” and “nevertheless, … persisted.” Celebrated were women well known for their “persistence,” such as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, reproductive rights champion Margaret Sanger, and civil rights leader, Rosa Parks. Also celebrated were some who were perhaps lesser known, but no less important, like young Ruby Bridges who courageously crossed angry segregationist lines to integrate her elementary school in Louisiana in 1960, U.S. Fencing team member Ibtihaj Muhammad who has successfully risen through both sexism and xenophobia to secure her place on the team, and Leshia Evans, a young African American mother and nurse who faced down officers dressed in riot gear during a Black Lives Matter rally in Baton Rouge.
We celebrate these women because each of them has modeled something important. They have, in the face of great difficulty and tremendous misogyny, persisted. The events of this week offered us a potent reminder that, we too, have the capacity to persist through our greatest challenges. Importantly, we’ve re-centered ourselves around the idea that we will not be silenced.
Sen. Warren, speaking in a Capitol conference room on the morning after she was reprimanded, acknowledged that those who share our values find ourselves in a uniquely trying time. “This is going to be hard,” she said. “We don’t have the tools [referring to our minority of Democratic members in the House and Senate]. There’s going to be a lot we will lose. But I guarantee, the one thing we will not lose, we will not lose our voices.”
I couldn’t agree more, Sen. Warren. I couldn’t agree more.