Let’s go back to 2017 for a moment. “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after silencing Massachusetts Senior Senator Elizabeth Warren, forcing her to step down from the floor of the Senate. She had attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter condemning Attorney General Appointee (and Alabama Junior Senator) Jeff Sessions’s racist voter suppression rulings. She read the rest of it over a Facebook live video, which went viral. She would not be fully silenced.
“Nevertheless she persisted” became a feminist rallying cry, and “Persist” a campaign slogan for Warren — first for her 2018 Senate re-election campaign, and presently for her presidential campaign. Beyond her, beyond politics, there may be no more inclusive and accurate — yet poetically concise — way to convey what it means to be a woman in this world and forge on in one’s own determined path.
In the political realm, Senator Warren has faced what we see successful women candidates just about always face — commentary that “she’s not likeable”, “she should smile more”,“she’s shrill”, all-too-frequent commentary on her dress and appearance, and the like. The most pernicious part of this commentary may be the larger idea to which it leads — “she can’t win”. Jon Lovett of Crooked Media had a bitingly sad, yet seemingly accurate response to this media narrative; “she can’t win because the media says she can’t win,” he asserted. Expectations, and the beliefs and actions that they engender, become powerful. That effect is particularly true in a political base such as the Democratic party of 2019, to which nothing feels more important than defeating President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
A piece from the satirical McSweeney’s tied these narratives back to their misogynistic, patriarchal source. As with Hillary Clinton, the problem is not that Warren’s a woman, it’s who she is, believes the fictional male speaker. He doesn’t have a problem with women — he’s got a wife and a daughter. He never shouted “lock her up!” or believed in “Pizzagate”. He’s not one of those crazy MAGA folks. Clinton is just dishonest. There’s just something about her that he can’t trust. “
So I’m a perfectly reasonable, women-friendly fellow who is completely open to the idea of a woman president. And I never thought I’d hate anyone as much as I hate Hillary Clinton. But to my surprise, I’m actually starting to hate Elizabeth Warren…she just rubs me the wrong way,” he says. Surprise, surprise, he’s also starting to have similar feelings towards other women presidential candidates, such as Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillilbrand, he says.
Despite his beliefs in his good intentions and just beliefs, the misogyny is pretty thinly veiled. Like all effective satire, the piece lets the focus of its derision reveal its own fallacy. It shows that the heartbeat of misogyny can pulse in something far less extreme than “lock her up!”. That heartbeat pulses strong in both men and women all throughout this culture. It drags us all down.
Simply put, through it all, Senator Warren persists. She keeps fighting the fight she believes in, continues to “have a plan for that” (as the cultural slogan goes), and even intentionally empowers young girls to follow in her footsteps. Her answer to a Harvard student’s question on concerns that she might be “Hillary-ed” reveals this spirit. She described how in her 2012 Senate run, against a male Republican incumbent, she heard all that what-is-she-wearing, how’s-her-hair, does-she-smile-enough critique. But she kept on running, keeping her eyes on the prize.
Furthermore, when she would see a little girl while on the trail, she would kneel down and say to her “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and I’m running for Senate, because that’s what girls do.” She and the little girl would pinky promise, she said, and she’d count up the number of pinky-promises at the end of each day. Thus, Warren not only didn’t let sexist critique get to her, she actively worked to ensure that it wouldn’t overpower the next generation of (potential) women politicians. She focused not on bad-faith, sexist rhetoric against her, only on what was in her power to do.
Still today, in the run for the 2020 election’s Democratic nominee, “Persist” is not just a campaign slogan — it’s how Senator Warren operates. She keeps putting forward nuanced policy proposals, on everything from criminal justice reform to universal daycare coverage (ergo, “she’s got a plan for that”). She keeps hammering home her message of making Washington work for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. She also connects this message with her personal story in a very touching, meaningful way. She has steadily risen in the polls, to the point where it seems like she has a chance at the nomination (whereas at one point it seemed like far more of a long shot). Nevertheless, she’s persisted.
That spirit of nevertheless, persisting has also been clear within “The Squad” (as they’re known in Washington, and now across the nation) — women of color Democratic Freshman Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), and Ayanna Pressley (MA-07). In a story that captured our frenetic news cycle and cultural commentary for the good part of a week, the President tweeted that if they’re unhappy with America, they should “go back to the countries they came from” and help fix those countries’ governments (following a Fox News segment criticizing them). As has been discussed ad nauseum, there’s so much wrong with that sentiment, it’s hard to know where to start.
Suffice it to say that it’s racist (“go back to your country” is one of the oldest, most common racist tropes out there), undemocratic (Freedom of Speech allows us to critique our government without its backlash, and critiquing it means that we love it enough to want to see it be better), and simply fallacious (three of the women were born in the US, and Representative Omar has earned her right to citizenship and residency here — she’s entitled to anything and everything birthright citizens are).
It all only got worse from there; a few days later, a large group of the President’s supporters chanted “send her back!” over and over at a rally. The President claimed that she spoke up quickly to interrupt them, but video demonstrates how that claim is simply a lie. Though there is nothing overtly sexist in all of that, one could rightly wonder if four Congressmen would be treated in the same way. In the face of it all, these women’s responses were nothing short of heroic and inspiring.
Representative Omar tweeted out part of a Maya Angelou poem, affirming that no matter how she is persecuted she will still rise. Representative Pressley expressed that anyone who has their values and stands up for progress is part of “The Squad”. At a packed rally, Representative Ocasio-Cortez affirmed that “we will not go back”, and will not be silenced (“we” meaning immigrants and people of color, as well as those with progressive values who support them). Representative Tlaib’s pinned tweet is “It is an honor to serve and fight for you…Thank you for believing in the possibility of someone like me representing you in Congress…..You are all my Squad!”. In these responses is ferocity, but also joy. Rather than be intimidated by a racist president, these women are fighting as hard as ever for their vision, for their values, and for their constituents.
Above and beyond elected officials, every woman knows what it means to persist. It means to keep walking when catcalled, toward her destination — but more importantly toward her vision for her own life. It means to keep living and working toward her dream as a survivor of sexual assault. It means knowing that she is being granted less credibility and less of a chance to succeed than male colleagues, perhaps even being gaslit when she expresses what she sees there, and continuing to work hard everyday despite that. It means grin and bearing menstrual cramps and pains just to get through the day and not be called “dramatic” or infantilized with inauthentic sympathy.
It means coming back to work too soon (as doctors and early childhood specialists may determine) after childbirth, when all that she wants to do is be home with her baby, because this country fails to legislate federally-mandated paid maternal leave. It means living one’s life knowing that the President is an alleged serial rapist, and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on Supreme Court Appointee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh was not enough to block his appointment to the Court. Granted, some men know what it’s like to persist in the face of things like the above — particularly in regards to sexual assault — or can at least empathize. The conversation on gender has also become much more fluid and nuanced, and rightly so. Yet, by and large, these things lie within the female experience.
Artist Courtney Privett created a powerful cartoon reflecting this spirit of persistence not long after Majority Leader McConnell’s “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It went viral soon after she released it. A woman faces what seems like a wall of statements that women know all too well: “your clothing is distracting to the boys”, “feminists are annoying”, “why are you so emotional?”, “that’s a man’s job”, and on and on and on. Despite hearing such things, Elizabeth Warren persists. So does “The Squad”. So do all women, in our own ways. May we all work towards a world in which there is less that we must persist in the face of. Yet persist we must, and persist we will. Our work out there, our visions, what our hearts and minds can offer — it’s all too important not to.