Here's Why Persistent Women Are Both Loved & Loathed


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When Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor for trying to read a letter by Coretta Scott King in opposition to Jeff Sessions, it was a moment of outrage and frustration for countless women -- but it was also, unfortunately, a moment that countless women found all too familiar. It's still infuriatingly common for women to be punished for speaking their minds, still infuriatingly common for women to be reviled for their tenacity and resolve. 

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In an attempt to chastise Warren and justify her silencing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now infamously said: 

"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

But what McConnell meant to be a criticism has turned into a unifying statement, a call to arms, with the hashtag #ShePersisted immediately going viral:

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Yes, Warren persisted. She spoke out in the face of injustice. Any man who did the same would be applauded, or at the very least tolerated. The double standard at play here is so obvious it's painful. 

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico called McConnell's use of the relatively unknown rule (meant to stop senators from impugning each other) against Warren "selective enforcement," while Bernie Sanders said, "I think Leader McConnell owes Senator Warren an apology, and I believe that it is unconscionable and outrageous that Senator Warren not be allowed to participate in the discussion about whether Jeff Sessions becomes our next attorney general."

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Warren's silencing (and the subsequent backlash) perfectly demonstrates exactly what happens to strong, persistent women in our society. Like Hillary Clinton, they are both applauded and condemned, and, too often, stopped in their tracks -- and this phenomenon isn't limited to the political sphere.

CafeMom asked Lucia Albino Gilbert, PhD, professor emerita of psychology at Santa Clara University and the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in women's issues, to weigh in on why it is that women like Warren and Clinton elicit this type of reaction.

"When women engage in behaviors that are assumed to belong to men, they are viewed as 'acting like men' and engaging in behavior that is a mismatch for their sex," says Gilbert. "In addition, conventional gender socialization encourages men, especially white men, to believe that they are superior to women. Some theorists argue that in order for men to hold on to their assumed prerogative of superiority, they need to control women."

Well, that explains Warren's silencing -- and so much else. As Gilbert puts it:

The traditional response to women who engage in such behaviors is to keep them in their place by not sanctioning their right to engage in this 'out of role' behavior. There are many examples of women being punished for their out-of-role behavior and finding ways to silence them, including labeling such women as uppity, man haters, as not following the rules, barring them from certain work roles, harassment, etc.

Or like calling them "nasty" and launching witch hunts for perceived indiscretions (such as using a private email account) that would be overlooked if (and when) a man committed them?

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Gilbert referenced the observation Carolyn Heilbrun made in her book Writing a Woman's Life that women are assumed to be particularly suited for empowering others, but not themselves -- a damning misconception, which implies that women are meant to be in domestic roles only, not pursuing careers.

Well, the way we see it, it seems our society will often "forgive" women their ambition if they also appear to exhibit traditional female traits, whereas the blatant rejection of domesticity is generally met with scorn. It's why Hillary Clinton was never able to live down the comment she made about choosing her career over staying home to bake cookies and have teas -- though it must be noted that while this comment offended many (men, mostly), it became a source of validation for many others (women, mainly).

There are those of us who admire and appreciate persistent women precisely because they are persistent, because they represent all the opportunities women have worked so hard to have. There are more of us on this side of the fence than ever. But it's still an uphill battle, particularly for women in male-dominated fields.

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Gilbert reminds us that Senator Warren was silenced in her workplace -- where she is a leader. Yes, our elected female officials are forced to stand up to this fierce and unrelenting opposition on a daily basis -- as are women in all walks of life. That takes an unshakably strong sense of self.

"Women -- and men -- who care about their country and take the oath of office find the strength they need to serve their country," says Gilbert. "Senator Warren is such a person. There are many, many women in all walks of life who refuse to quit even when faced with constant sexism and other challenges. Let's not try to make them 'exceptional' women, and put them into some exclusive category -- they are all women. Look at the response to the recent Women's March."

Indeed. But what can we do when we're feeling discouraged? Because most of us have felt, at some point or another, that men want to silence us, just like Elizabeth Warren -- whether those men are in the government or the workplace. What can we do when we feel like our voices aren't being heard?

"My advice would be to talk with colleagues they trust about strategies they could use to disarm others so that they can more comfortably engage in out-of-role behavior," says Gilbert. "Often helpful is role-playing the situation with others. This kind of practice can increase self-confidence but also assist in learning how to deal with negative perceptions."

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Thanks to women like Warren, Clinton, and countless others willing to risk everything for their truth, we at least have many examples to look toward for inspiration. We have Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who fought misogyny at Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of 500 (while caring for her child and cancer-stricken husband). We have Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the only person to vote against every Trump cabinet appointment. We have Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in US history. We have Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first US athlete to compete at the Olympic Games wearing a hijab. These women persisted. We will persist. We have no choice. 

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