“Nevertheless, she persisted”

By Carolyn Nesbitt-Larking

What happened to Senator Elizabeth Warren this week in Congress was a disgrace. But more alarming was the following statement directed to her from Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell:

“She was warned,” Mr. McConnell said of Ms. Warren. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

For many, a blatant use of an arcane procedural rule to justify the silence a woman. For a few, just following procedure.

It reminds how little has changed, and, perhaps, how much worse things have become.

As an adjunct professor, I used teach a course on Women and Politics. I remember the vigorous debates at the time whether to call the course Women and Politics, or Gender and Politics; demonstrating this type of course offering was, at the time, one of the most energized fields in the discipline of political science. I’m sure for many this may seem a redundant waste of time. But as we have learned over the years, the use of political rhetoric still matters. And why wouldn’t it, considering the foundation of this course explored power relations and governance from a perspective that recognizes gender as a politically and socially constructed category.

Some of the questions I addressed in the class included: the unequal status between men and women in political, economic and social affairs and processes; the relevance of feminist theory in understanding historic and contemporary questions of justice, authority and power; the meaning and significance of identities; the implications of a gendered analysis of institutions  such as the state, international organizations, bureaucracy, political parties, social movements and trade unions; and the impact of a gendered analysis of development and underdevelopment, international conflict, globalization, migration and citizenship; ultimately leading to an analysis of public policy in Canadian and global politics.

But I want to tell you about a little social experiment I would conduct in each of my classes.

I had few rules to guide the management of my classroom, as I saw each of my students as young, mature adults, but I did have a definite style based on certain expectations and aspirations. Most importantly, I insisted that none of my students raise their hands to engage in conversation or answer questions put to the class.

In my first day of teaching quite a few years ago I noticed how the male students in the class were at the ready to jump in and respond to whatever the discussion question happened to be – even if they hadn’t a clue what they were talking about, I noted how they were programmed almost to blurt out whatever thought, image or impulse they might have. While the women in my class would sit patiently with their hands raised waiting to  be acknowledged and invited to enter into the discussion; and in that moment I was reminded how differently we’ve socialized males and females to engage in public discourse.

I decided from then on to engage in my own little social experiment. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to oppress the men in my lectures, but more to work towards a level playing field. When I announced on the first day of meeting with a new class what I was doing and why, I usually found a few awkward stares, much hesitation, a few snickers from the back, and, oftentimes, silence when I began asking questions. Sure enough, a few hands would slowly start to be raised, then quickly lowered, particularly after a friendly reminder from myself at the front of the class. It is hard to break old patterns, old habits. I also recognized the deep fear that many of my female students had at this new way of engaging. And yes, there were times when I was at the receiving end of some difficult challenges some of the students had to undergo within this new safe zone of finding ones voice. But for me, that was the one foundational piece to being an instructor.

But I loved watching what would transpire within a few short meetings. The conversation would become more dynamic, the level of engagement in this public mode of discourse  took on new meaning. I began to see the free give-and-take between all my students and the inevitable thoughtful debates and discussion that ensued, while I facilitated.

I believe passionately in this little social experiment I set up with my students, and I have seen the results of these small steps working to break down some of those powerfully entrenched social barriers we often don’t recognize until little experients like this are made.

And so, when I witness what happened to Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the senate, where bullying seems far more entrenched, and the stakes much higher, I can only assert that we all need to be much more vigilant in the behaviours of public discourse.

How many times have you been in the classroom, a meeting at work, or involved in some other type of public discourse and recognized the disparity between men and women engaging fully? Next time you’re in one of those settings, sit back for a while and really watch – conduct your own social experiment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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