Friday, December 29, 2017

2017's backlash against women speaking up: 14 big examples

We are ending 2017 with an as yet unfinished conversation about sexual harassment and what it does to silence women. For many of us, this is a welcome and long-overdue conversation. But before you start rejoicing, listen to what actor Meryl Streep says will follow:
Meryl Streep isn’t convinced that the current conversation about sexual harassment in Hollywood will lead to an immediate cultural shift. 
“I see it leading straight to a backlash,” she said during a panel discussion at The Washington Post offices Thursday. She’s not entirely pessimistic, though. Eventually, she says, change will come; it just might take some time. 
“I don’t think we move in an easy trajectory towards an enlightened future,” she said. “We’re gonna hit the wall on this one soon.”
That backlash is already in progress, which should surprise no one. I see 2017 as a full year of backlash against women speaking up publicly, and not just about sexual harassment. The proof is in the speeches and what happened when they were given. I started out to do a more typical year-end  list of significant speeches by women throughout the year, and found that the speeches by women I consider most important in 2017 all have something in common: Every single one represents an effort to silence women speakers in some way, whether by interrupting her, mansplaining, not taking her comments seriously, using procedures to stop her speaking, trolling her with criticisms and threats, blaming and shaming her, and more.

That was 2017's version of backlash, backlash against the near-success of the United States in almost electing a woman president, and against the power unleashed in the Women's March which occurred on the day after the new U.S. president's inauguration. Classics scholar Mary Beard has said, "It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it." But this time, the hints of that authority were strong...and so has been the reaction against it.

Virtually all of these women, in addition to continuing to speak out, have publicly labeled the backlash for what it is, and that's something that any woman speaker should get used to doing, since there will be more backlash to come. I decided to arrange the speeches chronologically so you can see how the year progressed for women speakers. It's difficult to imagine a similar list for male speakers, isn't it? That's white male speaker privilege in action, public speaking style. I hope that by collecting this list, everyone will have a chance to see how frequently women's speaking is a case of "girl, interrupted."

So does this qualify as a "best of 2017" list? I think so. These were speeches given under duress and threats, but they are forceful, persuasive, and even poetic. They certainly meet our bar for being famous. But best of all for our readers, each one is a stellar example of how to handle difficult  and challenging speaking situations. I think we'll be seeing even more of those in 2018, but here's a look at how that played out this year:
  1. January: Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech was given in the early days of the new U.S. presidential administration and before the Women's March. She devoted a high-profile lifetime achievement award speech to condemn the new president. The backlash began with criticism from the none other than the newly elected president himself. At this moment, it was a rare act of defiance--but because it was prominent and first, its impact was stunning. Though an extemporaneous riff, it's worth study by speechwriters, so compact and focused is this speech.
  2. January: Ashley Judd's spoken word poem performance at the Women's March -- the largest single-day protest in recorded U.S. history -- had to overcome a huge obstacle before she could speak: Figuring out how to stop Michael Moore, one of the few male speakers, from continuing to hog the mic so long that he wound up with the most time of any speaker. At a women's march. She took the stage, mic in hand, introduced herself and kept going. It's a bravura performance, easily the most lively and well-received of the day's speeches, featuring the work of a young poet. And yes, the backlash was intense.
  3. January: Hawaii Rep. Fukumoto at the Women's March in her home state used this rally and speech to make public something that happened to her in private. A Republican leader of the state legislature, she had expressed dismay over the new president's words and approaches, but was told she needed to silence herself. The speech makes clear why she did not choose to do that, at a high price: She lost her leadership role and later switched political parties, but held her ground and her seat.
  4. February: Elizabeth Warren's silencing in the U.S. Senate came as a surprise "rules enforcement" procedural power play while she held the floor. She was entering into the record a letter critical of the new nominee for Attorney General of the United States. The Senate leader abruptly forced her to stop, citing an arcane rule; later that evening, male Democratic senators read the same letter without interruption, making clear that this was discriminatory behavior. Warren left the floor and headed for Facebook Live, where she read her entire statement to an audience far larger than any that would have seen the limited broadcast of the Senate debate.
  5. February: California State Senator Janet Nguyen's silencing was over a tribute to a late former state senator who'd been an activist during the war in Vietnam--her home country--supporting the Communist government that persecuted her people. She rose to make this unpopular point about the popular senator who'd just died, and was stopped, first by a procedural objection, then by being hustled away from the microphone by security guards before she could finish.
  6. April: Minnesota Rep. Hortman called out white male colleagues in the legislature when she realized they were leaving the floor when women--especially women of color--were speaking, effectively silencing their female colleagues by denying them an audience as the men chose to go play cards in an anteroom. And because she called it a "white male card game," she was met with calls for an apology...which she refused to give. Consider how different this legislative battle over women's voices was because a woman was in charge.
  7. June: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris got interrupted by male colleagues twice in two weeks in the Senate--while her male and white colleagues were allowed to speak unfettered. In this case, insults were used to try to silence and shame her: She was labeled political, discourteous, and, yes, hysterical for insisting on her right to speak.
  8. June: Arianna Huffington got mansplained at the Uber all-hands meeting in the worst possible way: The meeting was on fixes for the company's sexist culture, and Huffington was announcing the appointment of another woman to the board, when a male board member interrupted and suggested that appointing one more woman just meant "more talking."
  9. June: Anita Sarkeesian on the panel from hell at VidCon gives us at once an inside look at what happens when women are trolled, live, while they try to speak on panels--in this case, with row upon row of organized opposition intent on disrupting speech--as well as how Sarkeesian, among the most-trolled women speakers, has begun to address it in real time.
  10. August: U.S. Representative Maxine Waters's "reclaiming my time" used a perfectly proper House floor rule to let a non-responsive witness know that his talking without answering was not going to reduce her allotted speaking time. It became a rallying cry and also could be your new favorite phrase to use when you get talked over in a meeting next.
  11. August: Susan Bro: "They tried to kill my child to shut her up" was the eulogy this mother gave when her outspoken daughter was mowed down by a driver during the Charlottesville, Va., protests this year. Bro's speech served as a chance for her daughter's voice to be heard by a wider audience than ever--or, as she said, addressing herself to her child's killer, "you just magnified her."
  12. August: Taylor Swift's harassment testimony gave every woman who's brought harassment charges forward a new template for how to answer leading questions in court (or elsewhere): fiercely. The questions were the typical type, intended to blame and shame the victim and thereby silence her complaint, or at least establish her lack of certainty. Not so here. Her direct responses--like "He grabbed my ass"--were offered without apology, and she wasn't afraid to correct her questioners. She won the symbolic and actual case, too.
  13. September: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz's speech, "We Are Dying Here," did what mayors do when their cities are laid flat by a disaster: Ask for help from the federal government. But unlike other mayors in similar circumstance, this woman of color was dubbed "nasty" and as exhibiting "poor leadership" by none other than the U.S. president, and ignored by him when he went to Puerto Rico to meet for local officials. She keeps speaking up despite the insults and shaming tactics.
  14. October: UK Prime Minister Theresa May's interrupted Tory conference speech was interrupted by a planned, elaborate, ideal-for-the-cameras stunt that came early enough in the speech to ensure that that's all the coverage was about, on social and traditional media. A ploy to weaken her status in the party, the interruption may have been the most outrageous of our examples this year.
(Wikimedia Commons photo of the Women's March on Washington)

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