To be a woman is to be interrupted.
Correction: To be female is to be interrupted. By the time most girls reach their first day of school, they already know how it feels to be drowned out by a chattering group of boys.
From classrooms to corporate workspace to the chambers of the US Supreme Court, women often find themselves asking a question or making a salient point when a man decides that what he has to say is more important. Maybe she “isn’t telling the story the right way,” which means his way. Most threatening of all, she may be challenging him in a way he simply can’t abide.
There’s a word for it: “manterrupting,” a cultural sibling of the equally annoying “mansplaining.” And there’s even an app for that: Woman Interrupted, which tracks how many times a man cuts off a woman in a conversation.
Women seethed when Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who now represents California in the Senate, was forced to end her tough questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a hearing on possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. When Sessions sputtered, “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous,” John McCain and Richard Burr swooped in quickly to cut Harris off. One might have thought “nervous” was Sessions’s safe word.
It was the second time this month Harris was shut down during a Senate hearing. After this latest incident, her colleague Ron Wyden tweeted: “Again [Harris] was doing her job. She was interrupted for asking tough questions.”
Harris was also interrupted because she’s a woman.
In a roomful of men, women can find themselves fighting to get a word in edgewise. Both Wyden and Angus King were no less dogged during Sessions’ Senate hearing, yet their colleagues felt no need to shut them down as McCain and Burr did to Harris. (That she’s a black woman likely exacerbated tensions for Sessions and many of the men in the chamber.)
Even the Supreme Court’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor are subjected to similar treatment. According to a recent study, female justices are three times more likely to be interrupted by their male colleagues.
To be sure, this treatment crosses racial and political lines. During the Obama administration women staffers felt so overlooked they devised a strategy they called “amplification.” If a woman made a compelling point, The Washington Post reported, other women would not only repeat it, they would always credit its originator. When Obama noticed, he began calling on more women during meetings.
This occurs all the time, but occasional examples seep into public consciousness. In February, Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren for trying to read a letter by the late Coretta Scott King opposing Sessions’ 1986 federal judge nomination. Both McConnell and Warren are members of the US Senate, yet he treated Warren like an insolent child who spoke in class without raising her hand. No wonder McConnell’s scolding of Warren — “nevertheless, she persisted” — became a battle cry for women.
Remember that “Imma let you finish” moment — when Kanye West jumped on stage eight years ago, just as Taylor Swift was about to accept an MTV award that he thought Beyonce should have won?
None of this is new. In the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is the first to see the resurrected Jesus after his crucifixion. She goes to his disciples to spread the good news, but is quickly interrupted and dismissed by these men who refuse to believe her.
Assertive women know all the labels that will be flung our way. Among those that can be printed here are “pushy,” “shrill,” “loud-mouthed,” “hysterical,” and if you’re African-American, “angry.” We can’t let such words be a deterrent. It’s not enough to have a seat at the table; we have to be heard.
Being cut off in one hearing didn’t stop Harris from going after Sessions, and it won’t hold her back in the next Senate hearing. That’s the lesson here. To be a woman, in any setting, is a lesson in persistence. Women will be interrupted, but we won’t be silenced.