In 2017, during Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Senator Elizabeth Warren raised concerns about Sessions’ civil rights record.
After quoting a statement made by former Senator Ted Kennedy in 1986, that Sessions was a disgrace to the Justice Department, Senator Warren proceeded to read a letter from Coretta Scott King that was written to the Senate Judiciary Committee that same year. Dr. King’s widow described how Sessions “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
The Senate Chair interrupted Senator Warren’s reading, accusing her of violating Senate rules. She responded, and was given permission to continue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then interrupted Senator Warren to raise his own objection to her reading the letter. She responded, and he objected again. A vote was called, and as a result, Senator Warren was silenced.
Following this, Senator McConnell stated on the Senate floor: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Those three words, “nevertheless, she persisted” quickly became a rallying cry for strong women who would not be silenced. Much like Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman”, it was a phrase taken up by feminists in the fight against misogyny.
When they’re transformed from the sense in which Senator McConnell intended them, those words are powerful.
It happens all too often that people or social groups in power try to silence the voices of those whose stories they don’t want to hear. This happens over and over to people of colour, people of the “wrong” religion or socioeconomic class, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. It also happens to people living with mental illness and other chronic illnesses.
Breaking silence is uncomfortable. It’s not easy. But our voices must be heard, which means we must continue despite those who try to silence us.
Nevertheless, we persisted.