“Nevertheless, she persisted.” An Excellent Slogan, but We’re Forgetting to Call Out Real Discrimination Based on Race and Sex

This past Tuesday, February 7, Mitch McConnell and Republican Senators required Elizabeth Warren to cut short her reading of Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter, which formed part of Warren’s arguments against the viability of Senator Jeff Sessions as a nominee for attorney general.  They silenced her—on the Senate floor—until Sessions’ hearing was over.  The New York Times’ account (2-7-17) uses the phrase “formally silence” in its headline, and such was the case, as the senators voted 49-43 to make Warren cease and desist in her probing of Sessions’ “fitness” for the job.  The Washington Post’s piece (2-8-17) cites Mitch McConnell’s rationale for initiating the use of old-time Rule XIX against Senator Warren:  “’Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,’” McConnell said later. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’”

Mitch McConnell does know that Senator Elizabeth Warren is an elected official of the United States Senate and not, well, his babysitting charge or a Salem witch on trial, doesn’t he?  As for the 48 GOP peers who stuck with him on this, they continue to be a flock of dangerously fearful sheep.  I see the action McConnell took late Tuesday night to be a desperate move to lock up some woman, somewhere, since he believes the “Lock Her Up” of the “president’s” campaign wasn’t realized fully enough.  I imagine McConnell locked in his own preening and limited worldview as he silences the words of a black, female civil rights icon articulated by a present-day white woman senator from Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Warren kicks ass.  She just does.  She does her homework, brooks no b.s., and comes out punching at a time when Democrats have been slow to resist.  In addition, individuals and groups on social media responded to McConnell’s unprofessional, power-play garbage in an instantaneous and properly biting manner (examples here).  Twitter’s tweets were a-flutter with creative responses, and the patriarchal language used by McConnell was immediately co-opted as a feminist banner.  Merchandisers got in on the action unbelievably quickly with “Nevertheless, she persisted” mugs and t-shirts, with proceeds going to the ACLU.  A rapid-fire response from the gender and race trenches works wonders.

There are two major points on this issue, however, that need greater emphasis.  The first was made beautifully in an opinion piece authored by James Grimmelmann and Jan Ellen Lewis in Friday’s (2-10-17) The New York Times.  They write that the GOP senators “added another chapter to a long and infamous tradition of manipulating congressional rules to prevent an open discussion of race.”  Exactly!  Elizabeth Warren was appropriately trying to establish long-standing concerns about Jeff Sessions’ racist beliefs and actions by reading a letter of one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and establishing that Sessions has no business occupying one of the highest posts in the land.  As Grimmelmann and Lewis state, it’s not that Elizabeth Warren didn’t know the rules, it’s that she recognized them as “unjust and antidemocratic.”  The 49 senators who voted to silence her just could not let race be debated on the Senate floor.

The second point is that 49 United States senators openly violated the United States Constitution by discriminating against Elizabeth Warren because she is a woman.  Rule XIX was not applied to Senator Tom Udall, Senator Sherrod Brown, or Senator Bernie Sanders when they read from Coretta Scott King’s letter.  While Udall, Brown, and Sanders appropriately insisted on reading Coretta Scott King’s words in the session, they did not call out their 49 colleagues on the sexual discrimination and harassment they had exercised against Warren in the Senate workplace.  McConnell and his thugs shut up a woman because they disagreed with her and had had enough.  This sounds like a partial definition of abuse, made even worse by the thugs’ hypocritical insistence on civility.  (*See Gender Shrapnel, Chapter 7, “On Emotion, Silence, and Shutting Up.”)  But no one pointed this out publicly.  In this day and age, must we still consider it “uncivil” to signal discriminatory actions in public?

Nan Stein writes, “When sexual harassment occurs in public and is not condemned, it becomes, with time, part of the social norm” (“Sexual Harassment in School. The Public Performance of Gendered Violence” [1998; p. 231]).  Therefore, we must call this incident what it is—a blatant and highly public example of sexual discrimination and harassment.

As I said before, Elizabeth Warren kicks ass.  They hit her with Rule XIX, and she hit back with Facebook and attentive news media.  She had the professional dedication and personal strength to keep reading Coretta Scott King’s words beyond the Senate floor.   Warren also wields a level of power that few people who experience workplace discrimination enjoy, thus giving her amplified voice and options not commonly available.  In fact, Warren even had the luxury to dismiss this discrimination she experienced as enacted against “Mrs. King’s voice” and against “millions who are afraid & appalled by what’s happening in our country” (as cited in this Feb. 7th NYT piece).  Warren has enough power to displace workplace discrimination, but she might need to own it so that we can call the actions of McConnell & Co. exactly what they are—illegal.

Nevertheless, she persisted, and that is still wonderful.

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