Wednesday, February 8, 2017

She was warned

Well, I didn't think I'd be posting again quite so soon.  And I'd intended my next post to be a round-up of recent knitting projects that I've completed, and a foretaste of things to come.  (True story: a package just came and I was so sure it was yarn for my next project - I bounded out the door, all excited...  And the nice man handed over a package of wine from a club we belong to.  My face fell.  I don't think that's the reaction he was expecting at all.)

But, time and tide - and crazy doings in the world of politics - wait for no woman.  So, I told you fair warning and here it is: linguistic analysis and feminism incoming...

Today's NYT coverage of the silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate included, in the front page article blurb online, the following quote from Mitch McConnell*:

"She was warned.  Nevertheless, she persisted."

I have to be honest.  Reading that gave me cold chills.

The more complete quote was:
"She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted."

This appears to me (and judging by the articles, tweets, email messages, and Facebook posts going around, I'm by no means alone here) to encompass the history of women in a nutshell, with only the consequences left unstated:  So we silenced her.

I've been mulling this over ever since (while simultaneously plotting with friends to make a t-shirt out of it; if that's your gig, stay tuned), and three things in particular strike me.  They are all linked to one another, and difficult to disentangle, but here goes.

First, and perhaps most simply, what I think resonates for so many women (and the reason why the trending hashtag here is #shepersisted) is that concept of persistence.  Persistence is what we do.  Think of the persistence it takes to do all the "women's work" that, changing times notwithstanding, is called that because it still typically does fall on women: diapers, dishes, laundry, changing sheets/towels/toilet paper, cleaning, child care, parent care - the list goes on and on.  Each of these tasks is one which must be done, but which doesn't stay done; if there's one thing we know, it's that clean dishes don't stay clean, and neither do diapers (alas). It takes a certain degree of dogged determination to hang on to the bigger picture and keep slogging through the daily round, sometimes. 

As knitters, we know this one particularly well.  Nothing but persistence lies between us and an FO we can use or gift, and be proud of.  It's persistence that makes us rip out that miscrossed cable (12 rows back) and fix it.  Persistence is what got countless pink pussyhats knitted in time for the Women's March in January (more discussion of this is bound to be forthcoming; I was fascinated). 

But that persistence can also encode something darker.  What is it that we are persistent in the face of?  Sometimes, as above, it's drudgery or repetitiveness.  But women deploy their persistence in other circumstances.  In the face of demeaning comments, or of being ignored; harrassment, assault, rape; a culture which attempts to deny women the right to determine what happens to their bodies in so many ways - and which calls it locker room talk, even when the talk becomes action.  Women persist as they earn less than men for doing the same work, and they persist in the face of men telling them that wage inequality just isn't a thing.  We persist patiently in the face of (sometimes endless) mansplaining.  (And, as a linguist, can I just tell you how much I love that word - talk about encoding a fabulous and real linguistic construct!)  When we are afraid, whether for our bodies or our sanity, we persist.  We persist in the face of warnings that our presence and behavior are unacceptable, and will have potentially very frightening consequences for us.

There is something even more insidious in those three little sentences, though, something that strikes me in particular as a linguist.  They are encoded in the same kind of language one might use to describe imposing a punishment or consequences for a naughty child.  "I warned her.  I explained why.  She didn't listen, so now she has to face the consequences."  In my gender and language class, I have my students read an article (West and Zimmerman 1983, for those who might be interested) that looks at interruptions - defined (simplifying here a little) as a turn in the conversation that is inserted into someone else's turn, and (this is important) which is disruptive to the conversation (by, for example, changing the subject, or taking the floor over before the first speaker is finished).  The authors first look at adult interruptions of children (contrary to popular belief, adults interrupt children far more often than children interrupt adults).  These interruptions most frequently take place at points in the conversation when children's behavior is deemed problematic by adults, and are used to try to redirect that behavior in order to bring it into line with expectations. 

And here's where things get interesting.  Looking at adult same-sex and cross-sex dyadic (two-person) conversations, it is clear (and this, by the way, shows up in study after study after study) that men interrupt women far more than women interrupt men, or than men interrupt men, or than women interrupt women.  And, moreover, their patterns of interruptions are remarkably congruent with adult interruptions of children.  In other words, men interrupt women at points in the conversation when they deem women's actions or words or thoughts to be problematic, in order to redirect them to fit expectations more closely.  "She was given an explanation" fits right into this; it suggests a speaker with superior knowledge and understanding of how one should behave, someone with the authority and power to require conformity.  (It's also very patronizing.)  This is just one of the many ways in which women are (and have historically been) treated as less than full adults. 

To my mind, this is what those three sentences encode.  We gave her a chance to behave like an adult (as defined by us) and then we interrupted her to force her into line.  The "she was warned" is deeply troubling.  Women who have been "warned", historically, have paid serious and often lethal prices for continuing to persist after that warning.  (I also find the distancing created by the use of the passive voice disturbing - who's the agent here?)  Linguists talk about the concept of "intertextuality" - the idea that a given text is understood at least in part through its link to similar texts produced elsewhere and elsewhen.  This text ("we warned her") is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as located in the context of all those past threats and their consequences.  It means that even though no-one will be burning Warren at the stake (but all those chants, directed at Clinton, of "jail her" and their intertextual links to "burn her" last fall were unmistakable and also resonate here), the chilling warmth of those historical flames is present.

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

Taken all together, the degree of misogyny encoded here is quite remarkable.

ETA:  Male Democratic Senators were allowed to read all or part (depending on the Senator) of Coretta Scott King's letter, including the part that Senator Warren was rebuked for (  As I said, it's not about party - it's about gender.

*I am focusing here, as a feminist and a linguist, on this text as spoken by a man to a woman in this context.  I could, but won't, also go into why I think the rule that McConnell cited is inappropriately applied here: while the rule states that Senators should avoid accusing other Senators of behavior unbecoming to a Senator (an attempt, I assume, to help stop Senators from engaging in ad hominem attacks on one another instead of debating the merits of legislation; not a bad idea in that context), it seems to me that in this context, Mr. Sessions is being evaluated as a candidate for Attorney General, rather than as the proposer of a bill.  Regardless of political leaning, the misogyny in this message seems like something that should trouble women...


Mary Lou said...

Sing it, sister. When I saw that quote this morning I felt a lurching in my stomach. Since that point, several male Senators have read the letter. Nada. no reaction.

Come travel with TonyBennett said...

Beautiful piece, thanks! Maybe we all need new hats, though I love to wear my
pussy hat: SHE PERSISTED. I love that she posted it to FB and also talked to
Rachel Maddow.
She persisted! As will we.

Your admirer,

Toni Myers

Erica said...

I am coming to believe that the things I am warned against are most often precisely the things that I must do. Not out of any particular sense of defiance, but because the people who decide they need to warn me are usually the ones trying to keep me from actually being myself. It is interesting how often people step in to tell you to stay small.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting your insights and thought. You nailed this to the wall. It was indeed troubling to hear her shut down that way, made more aggravating when men were allowed to continue. After reading the statistics, awhile back, that men interrupt women far more than vice-versa, I've been keenly aware how true this is. It's been fascinating to observe the dynamics in different situations and meetings where men and women are speaking and should be granted the same respect and courtesy. Even during a recent conference of Friends (Quakers) representatives there was still some of this overtaking and interrupting though on the whole people were respectful and allowed each other to speak without interruption and then to be silent for a time in order to think about what the person had said before someone else was allowed to speak. The worst offender was a male professor who has a high opinion of his opinions.

You should print up T-shirts with those three lines! They could be a hit right up there with the Pussyhats. Imagine the Washington mall filled with people wearing pink pussyhats and t-shirts with that quote.

Rachel said...

Thank you for a very interesting analysis, unfortunately I think these days with all that is going on around us someone may try to go further with the burn her idea.... But I am always the pessimist (I said he is going to be the president since he decided to run... poor us!)

Allison said...

Definitely t-shirts.
Welcome back to the blogosphere!

twinsetellen said...

Oh, yes. Thank you. Yes. Thank you again.

This is one spot of brilliance which will help me through the coming days, weeks, months, and dare I say it? years.