Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was silenced by Senate Republicans on Tuesday night when she tried to read a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King opposing the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to a federal judgeship. Warren was trying to use King’s letter to argue that Sessions, President Trump’s pick for attorney general, couldn’t actually be trusted to protect Americans’ civil rights.
Supposedly, Warren was shut down out of concern for decorum and decency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) argued that Warren violated an obscure Senate rule by speaking ill of a fellow senator.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) went even further in pleading for politeness — by urging his colleagues to think of Sessions’s wife.
Orrin Hatch said he finds it "offensive" for senators to be criticizing a fellow senator (Jeff Sessions) on the floor. "Think of his wife"— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) February 8, 2017
“Jeff Sessions is a really fine person,” Hatch said. “Think of his wife. She’s a really fine person. Jeff has been here 20 years. He’s interchanged with almost all of us. Sometimes you agree with him and sometimes you don’t, but he’s always been a gentleman.”
There are many problems with Hatch’s comments — like the suggestion that pointing out racism is somehow impolite, or that you can’t possibly hold racist views if you are a “gentleman.” As my colleague German Lopez has explained, Sessions really does have a problematic record on racial justice and civil rights issues.
But the most stunning part may have been when Hatch seemingly argued to silence a woman senator, who was quoting a woman civil rights leader, in order to avoid hurting another woman’s feelings by criticizing her husband’s political behavior.
It’s common for politicians to make emotional appeals to think of how certain events will affect our “wives and daughters.” It’s also a classic example of benevolent sexism: the idea that women must be protected and cherished, but not necessarily treated like equals.
Thinking of women primarily as wives and daughters means thinking of them in terms of their relationship to men, which often means forgetting that women are also full human beings in their own right.
I'm still thinking about how only women Hatch considers are those attached to men https://t.co/JDKfgwc00h— Jessica Luther (@scATX) February 8, 2017
There’s another layer to the disturbing gender dynamics here. Women, and women leaders in particular, often get criticized more for how they say something than for what they actually say. They have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.
When women speak, people tend to mentally turn up the volume. Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like "vocal fry" and "upspeak" when women use them, but often don't even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as "aggressive.”
Hatch complained that Warren launched a “constant diatribe” against Sessions. He suggested that by speaking out about Sessions’s history of racial bias, Warren was being unkind and uncivil to a kind, civil “gentleman” who deserved more respect.
A lot of factors went into McConnell’s decision to silence Warren, and GOP senators’ decision to go along with him on it. Partisanship and panic probably had a lot to do with it; King’s letter made Sessions, and the Republicans who will vote to confirm him, look very bad.
Still, moral panic has a way of getting much more intense when a powerful woman is making a strong statement in public — or even daring to speak in public at all.