Photo: Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 2.0
This week, Elle’s #FeministFriday post is a two-part deep-dive into the story of Elizabeth Warren being silenced by the Republican majority in the Senate for reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, further proving that you don’t actually need to “impugn” a fellow senator because they’ll do it to themselves if you give them half a chance.
One of the many, many frustrating moments you will have as a feminist (and there are oh so many to choose from) is when something happens that you know stinks to high heaven of sexism, but you have nothing but your gut (and you know, your eyes… and context… and history) to prove that it is sexist. “It’s not sexist just because it happened to a woman” the faceless crowd of sexism deniers sneer. “Can you prove that this wouldn’t have also happened if she happened to be a man?” Well no, seeing as no one has fully proven the “multiple universes” premise and also I have no way of guaranteeing that all of the circumstances of a certain figure’s existence would have been identical save the fact that this person is a male in the alternate universe, I can’t prove that it wouldn’t have played out exactly the same way in a different context. I can be pretty damn well convinced, however. For example, how about that time that Mitch McConnell interrupted Elizabeth Warren, told her that she was being mean to Jeff Sessions, and another man told her to take her seat? That probably wouldn’t have happened if she was a dude.
So before we get any further, let’s get some facts straight. Jeff Sessions, if he is not a racist himself (he probably is, but Richard has asked me to say things like “probably” and “allegedly” so we hopefully don’t get sued), has used positions of power to pursue really, really racist things. He prosecuted black voting rights activists for assisting black voters (in a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act) and did not prosecute white activists who did the same things for white voters. A court agreed that he was taking part in racial discrimination. He opposed the federal government trying to correct racial imbalances that diminished the powers of African American voters, and put policies in place that have ensured that no black judges have sat on the Alabama Supreme Court or the two lower courts in over twenty years. Sessions also opposes any efforts to correct judicial system flaws that largely target prisoners of color, such as death penalty reform, retroactively fixing sentencing that caused crack offenses to be treated much more harshly than cocaine sentences, and mandatory minimum reform. Hell, the man supports “chain gangs.” They literally make movies set in “olden times” where the main bad guys HAVE THE SAME OPINIONS AS JEFF SESSIONS. He also objects to investigating police departments for patterns of abuse when discrimination or abuse is shown to take place there. It’s really criticizing the police that leads to more crime, you see.
His racist views meant that he lost a chance at a federal judgeship in 1986. (Do you know how much more overtly racist you had to be in 1986 to be so racist that you lose a job than you can be today? So much more racist.) But it’s totally okay, guys, because if we could see into his heart, we’d know he wasn’t a racist. (Seriously, that’s what he and Lindsey Graham actually think).
With that in mind, let’s get back to Senator Warren.
Tuesday night (which for me writing, is right now! This is happening right now! You’re getting full, off-the-cuff Elle anger right now. You’re so lucky) Elizabeth Warren was giving a speech opposing “Probably”-a-Racist-Jeff-Sessions for Attorney General. To back up her claims that Sessions was Not Nice and Probably A Racist, she was reading statements from two deceased-but-still-important political figures, Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King. Warren was reading statements from both figures that they wrote in 1986, his Too-Racist-to-Be-a-Judge period. Then, like an avenging, chauvinistic turtle, McConnell interrupted Warren, repeated the words she had spoken (that were actually the words of Coretta Scott King). He called Warren “to order.” Warren, with more grace and class than I could ever hope to exhibit, did not respond with “you’re fucking kidding me, right?” Instead, with the “WTF” written on her face, she responded “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.” She asked to continue her remarks, the freshman Senator presiding over the Senate at the time (Steve Daines from Montana, for all you Big Sky readers who need some extra motivation to vote out assholes) asked if there were any objections to her continuing, and when McConnell objected, announced the objection “heard” and said “The Senator will take her seat.”
Later, the Republicans held a vote that split along party lines to uphold the idea that Warren had, in fact, violated the rules of debate by saying true things. Her words were stricken from the record, and she was not allowed to speak again regarding Sessions.
You can dress it up in all sorts of fancy language to explain what happened, and how. But let me boil it down for you: two white men told a white woman to sit down and shut up for daring to bring in the opinion of a black, female Civil Rights leader and a former Senate powerhouse. I’m honestly a little surprise they didn’t add a jab about her being hysterical just for flavor.
Anyone who has ever studied respectability politics can tell you, the rules and regulations of so called “polite” or “civilized” society have long been used as a mechanism to police the boundaries of power and to keep out anyone who the ruling elite doesn’t want to acknowledge. Surprise surprise, this is usually women, people of color, the poor, people with disabilities, etc., etc. Under these rules, very normal human interactions and even honesty itself are deemed impolite. Are you shouting or breaking things because you object to the normalization of a racist, sexist, Nazi nutbag? You’re too uncivilized to be listened to. Are you calling and e-mailing Senators to protest a grossly unqualified Secretary of Education candidate? You’re taking away precious attention from that Senator’s “real” constituents. Are you pointing out true things about a white man’s history of racist behavior in front of all of his friends? You’re “impugning his character.”
I can’t say for certain that the same thing wouldn’t have happened if Elizabeth Warren was actually Edward Warren. But I can make an educated guess. It is much easier for men to silence women, to imply that their righteous fury is rudeness and that their indignation is incivility, than it is for them to do the same to men. Even if sexism was not at the fore of their minds, its encoded in their actions, in the fact that McConnell was finally moved to take this almost unprecedented step only once a prominent female politician used the words of a prominent black woman to speak truth to power. Sexism does not have to be overt or even intentional in order to be sexism. Kinda like how Sessions’ racism didn’t have to be overt in order to be racism. Weird how that stuff works out, isn’t it?
Edit: The post originally ended here, but then Things Happened.
Man, sometimes when you get your posts for the week done early the universe decides to simultaneously screw with you and reward you, huh? So much has happened. There may have been cackles of glee. (Also sighs of despair. We’ll get to that.)
So, first of all, we have some confirmation for my “it’s sexism, stupid” theory of why Elizabeth Warren was shushed: Tom Udall, Jeff Markley, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders all read part or all of King’s letter, and Mitch McConnell didn’t accuse them of impugning Jeff Sessions even once. Apparently it takes a woman reading another woman’s words to count as “impugning” the character of a “probable” racist.
Then we learned that the part of Rule 19 that McConnell used to silence Warren was literally created because of a profoundly racist former Senator. Ben Tillman, a lynching advocate who used the N word so many times it actually makes my head a bit fuzzy and also said that Booker T. Washington visiting the White House would require the killing of 1,000 black men (only he didn’t say “black men”) in order make black people “learn their place again,” got so mad when another Senator called him a liar (after Tillman had insulted said Senator) that he punched the other Senator and they started to brawl. As Ben Mathis-Lilley puts it, “The rule was created, in other words, to protect senators like Ben Tillman from hearing mean things that would make them so mad they had to punch someone. And Ben Tillman, as it happens, is perhaps the most notorious proponent of racial terrorism in the history of the United States.” So Mitch McConnell used a rule that originated as a mechanism to prevent angry racists from getting their feelings hurt to stop Senator Warren from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King calling Jeff Sessions a racist. Also it was Black History Month. This is…. All kinds of ironic but not okay.
But then…. Then, oh my friends, then. Then, in the words of Richard, “McConnell handed Warren her seat in 2018 with a great slogan.” McConnell, trying to explain why he told a grown woman to sit down, be quiet, and (implicitly) smile pretty, said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Oh. My. God. Can you think of a better meme-worthy, tweet-worthy, slogan-worthy statement about the persistence of women’s speech in the face of men’s silencing? That shit is on t-shirts. It is on a t-shirt that I have been reliably informed has been purchased for me. In letting his sexism flag fly, McConnell turned what would have been a rather ordinary, futile attempt at making assholes see reason in a mostly-empty chamber into a rallying cry for women. “#ShePersisted, #LetLizSpeak” and “Silencing Elizabeth Warren” all turned into Twitter hashtags. People added the words to pictures of strong women throughout history, and also to pictures of Princess Leia. (obvs.) My glee, it is so many.
Of course, it really was futile for its intended purpose: Sessions was named Attorney General, which is goddamn terrifying. But the fight against him mattered. The backlash against the Senate’s sexism mattered. And it gave Warren some much-needed good publicity and good karma, considering that she might lose her Senate seat before she ever has a chance to become our first female president. I’m not in Boston anymore, so Massachusetts folks: please don’t let that happen, ‘kay? I thought I left things in good hands. Seriously, you turn away for… well okay three years, that’s probably too long… but still. She persisted. So can you.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not writing two-part studies in institutionalized sexism and explanations of how silencing women in the 21st century is sure to backfire, she studies gender in popular culture.
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