Nevertheless, she persisted ...
Early in 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked a little-known and rarely-used rule to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren in the middle of a speech criticizing Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions. Unwittingly, McConnell’s defense of the action gave feminists a whole new touchstone that has since been amplified by a million tweets, t-shirts, and event tattoos: “She was warned; she was given an explanation; nevertheless, she persisted.”
I doubt there is a woman in leadership who has not experienced the icy undertones of that statement. And, it’s precisely because of the familiar feelings brought on by McConnell’s words, and their unspoken meaning, that the statement took on a life of its own, extending both into the past and into the future – being used to reference the actions of courageous women throughout history from real-life civil rights hero Rosa Parks to fantasy hero of the future galaxy Princess Leia from Star Wars. Senator Warren was undeterred and continued her speech – a recitation of a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Her Facebook Live broadcast of the event received millions of views in a matter of days.
McConnell’s statements, which Senator Warren seemed to reclaim almost before McConnell had exhaled, followed an earlier insult hurled toward Hillary Clinton during the final presidential debate, in an increasingly uncivil presidential campaign, during which she was called a “nasty woman.” Clinton and her supporters almost immediately adopted “nasty woman” as a badge of honour and a point of pride. Both “nasty woman” and “nevertheless, she persisted” became viral battle cries for solidarity – what some have termed weaponized memes. Although the election did not turn out the way many nasty women would have hoped, it appeared to have awoken something in current and future generations who are increasingly recognizing the preciousness of progress on civil rights issues, as well as how far we have yet to go (and how easily we can lose ground).
We might feel immune from some of the vitriol of the latest season of American political drama up here in the Great White North, as we look to Prime Minister Trudeau’s “Because it’s 2015” moment that saw gender parity in cabinet. However, it’s all too easy for the conversation to stop there and ignore stories like that of Calgary MP Michelle Rempel, who shared her nearly six years of everyday sexism in a scathing op-ed in the National Post in April 2016. MP Rempel noted how we often turn the conversation in ways that further entrenches systemic sexism by encouraging young women to “lean in,” as if they are individually responsible for solving someone else’s prejudice and ignorance. She asks, “Why is there so much focus on giving women sexism survival strategies, which in turn, make us bear much of the responsibility for combatting it?”
Senator Warren, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Honourable Michelle Rempel represent an interesting cross-section of the public and political realm. They would likely disagree on many fronts – except for the guts and grit required to run for and achieve elected office. It’s depressing to know that they would be able to share almost identical stories of their experiences as women in leadership. (It’s also important to note that they are all white women with varying experiences of privilege and that women of colour, Indigenous women, disabled women, queer and lesbian women, and trans women – and all those with multiple and intersectional identities – face different, deeply entrenched, and often more severe barriers to achieving elected office.)
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has done incredible work through the Protégé Program and Diverse Voices for Change program; however, women still hear that they “don’t look like” a mayor or a councillor or a CAO, and the onus still seems overwhelmingly placed on women to do the work of overcoming gender-based barriers to achieving leadership positions by themselves. The FCM is aiming to help Canada’s local governments achieve the 30 percent representation goal set by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations for female representation in all orders of government, a goal that’s been set to help ensure women’s issues are taken into account at decision-making tables. The FCM’s current goal is to achieve 30 percent female representation in local government leadership roles by 2026 – a target and a timeline I find more than a little underwhelming and, sadly, feel uncertain that we can achieve given a 2016 study by Halena Seiferling out of Simon Fraser University that pointed to sexism as the biggest barrier keeping women from running for municipal office. Further, Seiferling’s report highlighted that, despite decades of work toward achieving this goal, we’ve barely moved the needle. The Beijing Platform for Action, which set the 30 percent target, was unanimously endorsed by delegates to the United Nations (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Women’s representation seemed to grow exponentially shortly after, with the global average of women in national parliaments nearly doubling, from 11.3 percent in 1995 to 22.1 percent in 2015. However, Seiferling’s report noted that the percentage of women elected at the local level in Canada was 19.4 percent in 2002, and by 2015 it was still only 23 percent. Twenty years after the Beijing Platform for Action, progress toward 30 percent women’s representation has slowed to a crawl, well short of the minimum benchmark, leading even the Inter-Parliamentary Union to ask “have we hit the glass ceiling?” Canadian women are attaining more, and higher levels, of education than ever (and more than their male peers), but experiencing consistently low political representation. It’s clear that whatever we’re doing to address sexism in local politics just isn’t cutting it. And, MP Rempel’s story addresses that we might in fact be taking a turn for the worse. This is where it feels right to quote Gloria Steinem, who said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Interestingly, in a November 2016 column by the Calgary Herald, Don Braid noted that, “Alberta has become a kind of social laboratory, unique in North America, to test whether a near-majority of women in a government caucus makes a change in style and substance. The verdict is already in – they do, as shown by both Notley’s conciliatory style and the NDP’s advance of women and minorities.” And, as Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen seemed to prove when she read aloud the shocking list of gendered insults hurled after she crossed the floor to join the NDP, many men apparently can’t stand the reality of a female premier supported by a caucus with a higher percentage of women than any other in Canadian history. As many activists point out, when you’ve grown accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression (… it’s not, though. Seriously.)
We need to have some uncomfortable conversations with the men in our lives and in our workplaces, because the impulse that leads a Senate House Leader to essentially tell his female peer to sit down and shut up exists on the same continuum as calling a woman bossy instead of a leader. The impulse that leads a presidential candidate to call his rival a “nasty woman” exists on the same continuum as speaking over your female colleagues in a meeting or claiming their ideas without credit. And, these all exist on the same continuum that, taken to its extreme, leads to women being seen as not quite fully human. But, it can be difficult for women to actually lead these conversations, despite all the advice to “lean in,” because if women speak even as little as 25 percent of the time during a meeting, they will be perceived as dominating the conversation; and if they point out subtle sexism, they are being too sensitive or too aggressive (that is, when they are not being interrupted almost twice as much as their male colleagues). It’s infuriating, exhausting emotional labour that gets stacked on top of the regular demands of living a full life and developing a meaningful career – and it often burns out our best and brightest women far too early. All of this is meant to say that we must fight this fight on two fronts: we must call out explicit sexism while also recognizing and addressing the small, everyday actions that hold women back. Otherwise, we’ll simply re-entrench the systemic sexism that some would like to claim has ended simply because it’s not always as overt as in an episode of Mad Men (although sometimes it is, and often it seems to feel much worse, given how far we are supposed to have come …). Achieving equality also means calling on our leaders and ourselves to recognize intersectional identities and the various layers of privilege and discrimination that shape our institutions and our lives. Sexism hurts everyone.
And, study after study keeps finding that inclusion and social equality are good for everyone – even the men who might feel most threatened.
Women are people, full stop. And men who believe that women are their personal and professional equals need to fully and fearlessly champion women as leaders in both word and deed. Take, for example, Ontario MPP Ted McMeekin’s 2016 stepping down from his position as Minister of Municipal Affairs in order to “make room” at the table for more women to support Premier Wynne’s goal of cabinet parity. “Sometimes the best way for a man to advance the equality of women may be to step back and make room at the table,” McMeekin said at the time. (Note, that it’s unclear if this actually worked as intended: the position of minister of Municipal Affairs is now occupied by another man, MPP Bill Mauro). MPP’s McMeekin’s statement and stepping down is one example of how men can model what it means to champion equality for other men, for friends, and for colleagues. Most men in leadership can begin by listening to the women in their lives when they point out everyday sexism and taking those conversations to heart … and to action. Even, and perhaps especially, if you believe yourself to be above sexism and beyond reproach, I would encourage you to listen to women’s stories and learn to recognize moments when you might have unthinkingly or unintentionally behaved in a way that perpetuated everyday sexism in your workplace, at home, or in your social life. Be willing to acknowledge that you might have been blind to subtle actions or dynamics that weigh down the women in your life – and then be ready to do something about it.
I echo Ms. Rempel and implore the men reading this column and leading our public sector institutions to recognize that “… combatting everyday sexism doesn’t lie with those who live with it, it lies with you.” If you need help, look no further than the “nasty women” who have persisted. MW
ASHLEIGH WEEDEN, MPA is an award-winning community engagement practitioner and whole-hearted public servant who works with creative leaders to produce positive, meaningful change in ourselves and our communities. A lifelong Amy Poehler fan, Ashleigh’s motto is “The doing is the thing,” and she enjoys working with productive mischief-makers to make great, big things happen. You can find her on Twitter at @ashleighweeden or by email at .
as published in Municipal World, August 2017