Recently, Republican Senators voted to silence Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in the midst of a speech she was giving on her opposition to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions. They refused to allow her to read a letter from Coretta Scott King that denounced Sessions. Senator Mitch McConnell objected to Warren’s speech and stepped forward to stop it, stating, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
What McConnell did not realize, apparently, was that for women, being told “no” and persisting in the face of said negativity is something we excel at. We have to, as it’s something many of us face constantly. McConnell unwittingly provided a battle cry for many women who have experienced sexism like Warren. We’ve been warned. We’ve been given explanations. Nevertheless, we persist. We asked our feminists this week to share stories of their own persistence in the face of negativity.
Natasha Vianna: “Throughout my younger years, most of what I heard in response to my dreams, goals and wishes was a huge “NO.” When I was a pregnant teen in high school, I asked if people would help me become a great mother, if I would have support to finish high school and go to college, if I would have the resources to find childcare, work, and housing, if I would have the power to define my own success, and if I would meet the goals I set forth for my family. Each and every time, I was told no. I was told to accept failure. I was told it wasn’t worth trying to change a system or society that stigmatizes teen moms. I was told to accept defeat and settle for a predetermined future. I was told to give up, but I persisted.”
Naseem Jamnia: “The first time I published a nonfiction piece, it was in 2014 on Tumblr. It was National Eating Disorders week (or month, I forget), and I decided to share my story. I got a ton of messages from people, thanking me for sharing, telling me their own stories. At the time, I was in the midst of an MS program in biology, and was in a complicated not-quite-relationship with an abusive best friend. ‘I might be able to do this full-time,’ I told him, about my writing. ‘I might be able to really do it!’
‘How long do you think you can keep up this experienced-based journalism?’ was his response. I didn’t post another piece like that for six months.
Now, three years later? I’m writing full-time.”
Jennifer Pozner: “When I had my first internship reporting and doing op-eds for a chain of Brooklyn newspapers at 19, my Trump-esque father demanded that I publish under a pseudonym because I ‘wasn’t allowed’ to use ‘his name’ (ie, MY name) as my byline on ‘all that feminazi lesbo Bolshevik propaganda.’ Later, both as a feminist racial justice activist and as an independent journalist, I’ve had a lifetime of being told ‘no,’ being ‘warned,’ “given an explanation,” being mansplained and condescended to, sometimes even being threatened with personal, professional, or violent repercussions. I knew how to persist because that was one positive lesson I learned from growing up in opposition to an abusive (and misogynist, racist) parent.”
Sarah Buttenwieser: “The incredible events since November 9th have made me believe in persistence like never before. I thought we were willing to endure all that misogyny to break a glass ceiling and once broken maybe we’d see a rainbow or something. Instead, it turns out misogyny led to more misogyny. Huh. Why was that surprising? Now, I will not be deterred—and I know I’m not alone in this. May our persistence pay off in such a shattering of glass it’s positively blinding.”
Shannon Luders-Manuel: My senior year of high school, I had a sexist government and economics teacher who frequently called on the boys and belittled the girls. At one point he created an economics analogy in which he pretended a soft-spoken female classmate worked at the local strip joint. I almost failed out of the class, but after winter break, my best friend transferred in due to a change in her schedule. She forced me to sign up for a required speech–something I was terrified to do because of the teacher–and I passed the class and graduated high school. I persisted because of the support of female solidarity.
Awanthi Vardaraj: “I’ve been told that I cannot, should not, will not all my life. First I was told that I couldn’t go running at dusk when I was growing up, but I kept on running. Then I was told that I shouldn’t talk to boys on the phone, but I thought that was ridiculous. I was told that I shouldn’t be too different at school, that I shouldn’t be cocky, and that I shouldn’t be independent. I was told that I shouldn’t go to acting school, and I had to give in to that because I couldn’t afford to go to acting school in New York, but I’ve never stopped because people told me that I couldn’t. I dropped out of a college I hated where I was studying a subject I wasn’t interested in, refused to get married simply because I was supposed to, and ended up travelling around the world and having adventures.
I just don’t hear the words ‘you cannot’ or ‘you should not’ when it comes to my life and what I want to do with it. I never have.”
Debra A. Klein: “As writers, as women, being ‘told no’ — explicitly, or implicitly — is part of our job/existential description. Our pursuit of just about anything is our collective persistence. We have no choice. What’s especially offensive about the Senator Warren episode is the archaic nature of the “offense” itself and that it was voted on and enforced by men. You could feel the collective hard-on those Senators must have gotten from telling a woman no.
While I can think of dozens of episodes in my life when I was told no, as I’m sure everyone here can, it’s time to turn our personal experiences into motivation for changes we’d like to see. The rules used to rebuff Senator Warren were written by men, and enforced in a body [The Senate] that has still yet to reach anything close to gender parity. As long as we keep jamming our nearly three-hundred twenty million strong, multi-cultural, gender-balanced societal body into an ill-fitting two-hundred forty-one year old garment crafted by and for white men, we’re never going to find an appropriate fit.”
Sara Habein: “When I was in 4th grade (roughly age 9), my mom noticed that some of my friends and I were feeling unchallenged by the material in class. I didn’t want to skip a grade, but we needed a ‘gifted’ program. Basically, we needed some sort of project we felt passionate about that would stretch our brains a little.
Except, the school didn’t feel like we needed it. The principal at the time even went as far to say, ‘I think you just want her to be called gifted.’ My mom answered, ‘I don’t care if you call her a monkey, but this kid needs something to do.’
Which was true. It’s not that I was a ‘please give me extra work’ kid a la Leslie Knope, but if I was bored, I would get to be a pain-in-the-ass, and not really want to do ANYTHING. Because I’m… well, a contrary pain in the ass sometimes. She got a bunch of other parents together to really hold fast against the principal’s reluctance, and finally, the principal agreed to bring the gifted ed teacher to the school once per week.
We got to make short movies, write stories, and really self-directed ourselves on whatever creative projects we wanted. Some of the extended curriculum classes (as they call them now) are more science- and math- focused, but I really appreciate that we were given free reign to do what we wanted in both 4th and 5th grade for about an hour and half every week. That early persistence from my mom probably planted a small seed in my brain that if you need something, you ask for it. And you keep asking until you get it.”
Mayim Bialik: “I almost lost my faith in myself when a few weeks ago, Trump kept doing crazy, weird, bizarre things EVERY DAY of the week. I was exhausted. I was being attacked. I felt like maybe there’s no room for my heart and my beliefs anymore. And so I took a few days to regroup and I feel rejuvenated. I feel like I can fight again. I can march again, I can speak out again. I can do this. A Rabbi friend of mine sent me a ‘Nevertheless She Persisted’ image. My mother-in-law told me she loved me. I looked at my sons and the world as it is and I decided we all must persist, now more than ever.”