by Madeline Bartos
Sen. Elizabeth Warren read a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, that criticized then nominee for federal judge, Jeff Sessions.
Warren was cut off, and could not finish reading the letter. She was charged with violating an obscure rule of Senate, which prevents impugning another senator. Basically, she was calling Jeff Sessions out on his racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic crap, like opposing legal immigration, pro-choice, same sex-marriage. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t like Warren calling Sessions out, so he used commonly ignored rule.
McConnell invoking a rarely used rule to silence Warren may have not been a big deal. Asking Warren to stop reading a letter from the widow of a prominent civil rights activist that depicted a poor image of Sessions may have not sparked an entire movement.
When McConnell defended the execution of the rare move, it was then that the new battle cry was born: “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” McConnell said. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
His derogatory dig at Warren’s resilience was an event that seemed too familiar for women – a woman trying to speak her mind was silenced by a powerful man. People took to Twitter very quickly to post pictures of influential women like Marie Curie, Malala Yousafzai, and Hillary Clinton with the hashtag #shepersisted. The negative connotation McConnell gave to the phrase “nevertheless she persisted” became a rallying cry for woman famously silenced by men when all she wanted to do was speak her mind.
In case Warren being barred from reading the letter was not humiliating and degrading enough, McConnell proceeded to ” (when a man talks down to a woman, assuming because he is a man and she is a woman he must know more about any given topic than her) what Warren had done wrong. Perhaps the most infuriating point is that McConnell added the now infamous phrase, “nevertheless she persisted,” as if a woman persisting insults the integrity of the Senate, and as if McConnell continuing to speak up for something she believes in was appalling.
Men often have the power to silence women. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, she writes about a friend of hers who is too afraid to speak up in her male-dominated workplace. There is this inherent fear that speaking out is unladylike. This idea is perhaps created by the patriarchy to keep women from threatening men and ultimately being seen as more than just mothers and wives, but maybe colleagues, equals, or even superiors. Being an outspoken woman is taboo, as if it might challenge men. But men, after all, are just humans, too. Where do they find the power to silence women?
In Purple Hibiscus, Papa uses his power, specifically the power he finds in religion, to suppress and silence his daughter Kambili and wife Beatrice. He uses religion to justify the physical power he exerts over Kambili. When he finds the painting of grandfather, he beats her. He doesn’t silence her words and actions, but he tries to silence any independent thoughts that Kambili has. Papa also believes that women should cover their hair in the house of god.
Modesty is stressed in other works we have read in class. Women must hide themselves and cover up so they will not tempt men, which reduces women to nothing but sexual temptations and men to nothing but animals unable to control their primitive desires. Women unable to execute power as not to threaten men is a dangerous narrative for both sexes.
In the works we have read in this class, like Purple Hibiscus, Persepolis, A Question of Power, and We Should All Be Feminists, there is a repeated theme of women needing to hide themselves, to shrink themselves, to get out of the way of men. In Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul, she talks about how covering up means even the slightest hint of skin is hyper sexualized and even the tiniest, accidental slip of fabric can send the wrong message. Kambili observes the women in church who don’t have their hair completely covered. Marij in Persepolis grows up in an era where fundamentalists in Iran forced women to wear veils and cover themselves. If they didn’t, they would end up like Marji’s mother, attacked by fundamentalists who said that if women don’t want to be sexually assaulted, they should wear a veil. According to the fundamentalists, if women chose not to wear a veil, they’re asking to be raped.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” Adichie says. “We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you threaten the man. . . We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
Papa suppresses Kambili and Beatrice by making them cover up. Some might say Islam suppresses women by making them wear a veil. And when McConnell felt threatened by Warren, he suppressed her, too. Whether or not Warren was wrong to “persist,” McConnell took advantage of the masculinity and male dominance of the US Senate system to silence her.
So where do women find their power? In the end of Purple Hibiscus, Kambili finds her voice with the help of Aunty Ifeoma, Father Amadi, Amaka, and Papa-Nnukwu. She is empowered by watching Aunty Ifeoma stand up for beliefs, the good Father Amadi sees in her, Amaka’s boldness, and the peace Papa-Nnukwu finds following his heart and his traditional religion. When Kambili visits Aunty Ifeoma and her family in Nsukka, Papa is no longer around to control her, and she finds power in her freedom. When there is no longer a dominant male in her life, she is free to recognize her power.
In The Underground Girls of Kabul, the girls find their power by acting like boys. When they lose their identity as a woman, as if it is something holding them back, they recognize all the power they could have in a place where men and women are equal. In Persepolis, women that Marji calls “modern women” find power in leaving bits and pieces of hair out of their veil. In Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, she finds her power through telling her story. She gains power by being able to control her stories enough to tell the terrible things males have done to her, like rape her when she was only 14. In Real Women Have Curves, Ana realizes her worth is more than what’s in between her legs and unlike Mama, she knows that she does not have to worry changing herself to find a husband.
For some women, they found power in McConnell’s “nevertheless she persisted” statement. On February 21, over 100 women lined up at Brass Knuckle Tattoo Studio in Minneapolis to get the quote tattooed on them.
Nora McInerny is a writer who begun the movement when she created a Facebook event for her and her friends to get the tattoo. She accidentally set the Facebook event to private, and close to 2,000 people said they were interested. “This is not a tattoo for myself,” McInerny said. “It is for every woman I know or don’t know. People have taken this as some sort of personal affront when it isn’t. It feels really important to have these little reminders.”
While McConnell may not have meant for the quote to be an attack on Warren or females, women are taking the quote to heart enough to repurpose it and get it permanently inked on their body. It’s a rallying cry for women who have are being silenced, stopped, or fighting an unphill battle – just keep persisting.
The tattoo event raised over $4000 for Women Winning, an organization in Minnesota which “recruits and develops candidates early in the electoral process with the goal of making each candidate not just the best woman in each race but the best candidate in each race.” Women Winning was founded by both Republicans and Democrats with the goal of putting qualified women in office who support woman’s right to choose.
Ultimately, I think we find our voice when we believe in our stories and we believe in ourselves. Woman find power when they become more than just their gender. Men seem to be afraid of empowered women, because if a woman can be as strong as a man, there is now twice as much competition. The threat to masculine power doubles. Whether or not the system of patriarchy admits it, and whether or not all men think this way, they are afraid that once women break through the “glass ceiling,” they will be unable to put them back in their place of submission. When women persist and fight against opposition, it shouldn’t be breaking news. It should be the norm.