Warren Silenced: The Patriarchy Strikes Back

Senate TV via AP

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington. 

There’s nothing the patriarchy hates more than a woman who’s got a point to make, especially a powerful point to make against the man the white patriarchy means to install in the highest law-enforcement office in the land. And the patriarchy really is not down with the fact that the point was originally made by a black woman, one of the most revered civil rights activists in modern history.

On Tuesday, when Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, read the words of Coretta Scott King from the Senate floor—words originally written in opposition to the 1986 nomination of Republican Jeff Sessions, currently the U.S. senator from Alabama, to the federal bench—Republicans invoked an arcane rule to shut down Warren’s speech and send her back to her seat. Warren’s remarks last night were offered in opposition to the nomination of Sessions to the position of attorney general.

Citing Senate Rule XIX, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Warren of “impugning the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” thereby violating the rule, which prohibits such a condemnation by one senator against another. At issue are the conduct and motives of Sessions during his tenure as a federal prosecutor with regard to the voting rights of African Americans, as described by King in a letter submitted to the Senate in 1986 as written testimony against Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship—a letter Warren read in her speech. McConnell appeared to take special umbrage at King’s accusation that Sessions used “the awesome power of his office” to “intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot” by African American voters. (In 1985, Sessions brought an apparently racially motivated case alleging voter fraud against three civil rights activists who were registering elderly black people to vote.)

It is worth noting here that King’s letter was never written into the record of Sessions’s 1986 nomination hearings for his federal judgeship, even though it was submitted as written testimony after King was invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter only came to light after it was unearthed by The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, acting on a BuzzFeed report of its existence. What the silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor really amounted to was a second Republican attempt at the erasure of Coretta Scott King’s damning letter—and the erasure of CSK as a leader of her people. Warren, of course, is embraced by many progressives as their leader in the Senate.

While Republican senators would, naturally, try to diminish any attempt, by either a male or female Democrat, to re-examine Sessions’s unsavory history on matters of race, I have my doubts whether they would have chosen the blunt-force method of silencing used against Warren had she been a man. I also wonder over the lengths to which they would go to erase Coretta Scott King’s letter had it been written by one of the eminent male civil rights leaders of the day. They know they’d have a much harder time getting away with such displays of contempt were their targets of the male persuasion. Institutional misogyny is so ingrained in the fiber of American culture that people of every stripe often fail to see in such attacks on women leaders the particular markers of that disease. But in our hearts, women know. Elizabeth Warren was effectively told, in the words of Politico’s Seung Min Kim, to “sit down—and shut up.” Any domestic violence expert will tell you that those are the sort of words that often precede the connection of a male fist to a female face.

Never mind that Warren wasn’t reading the King letter to comment on Sessions’s motives or conduct in his role as U.S. senator; she was speaking against his nomination to one of the most important jobs in the executive branch—a job that is, among other things, charged with enforcement of the citizens’ franchise of the vote. Never mind that King’s letter spoke directly to that concern. Never mind that over the course of the last two years, as The New York Times reports, both Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas appear to have violated the rule according to its true intent, without having it invoked against them. Cruz’s 2015 impugning of a fellow senator’s conduct motives was a critique of McConnell himself, described by Cruz as a liar. They’re men, and white men at that (and Republican).

Senate Republicans may not all love Donald Trump, but a significant aspect of their agenda dovetails nicely with Trump’s base-stoking, and that is the revival of a white male patriarchy that sees itself as threatened by a multicultural population and the changing roles of women in society. Trump’s courtship of the religious right speaks to this, as does his chief strategist’s courtship of white nationalists and supremacists, whose ideological misogyny is often overlooked.

Make no mistake: McConnell’s bullying of Elizabeth Warren for reading the words of Coretta Scott King was intended to convey to women—white, black, and of every other color and identity—just who’s boss. 

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