“She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
These were the words Sen. Mitch McConnell chose to explain why he ‘shut down’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren this week, in a rare invoking of Rule 19. It came as the Democrat politician read a letter from Civil Rights leader Coretta Scott King, regarding the questionable character of attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions.
We could dismiss this as simply party politics, of an attempt to further bury Sessions’ shady record, steeped in racial insensitivity. But, as Gail Collins writing for the New York Times notes, such efforts are unnecessary; the claims made in the letter are hardly revolutionary and the nomination will undoubtedly pass. Clearly, there is more to the story, and it follows a narrative all too familiar to women politicians and one which must be overcome to increase gender parity in politics.
Let’s take a closer look at the events of the hearing. Following McConnell’s silencing of Warren, four of her male colleagues took to the floor to read from that same letter. Were they too shut down? No. Were they even interrupted? No. It’s not hard to see that there’s a pattern here, and it’s a pattern that didn’t go unnoticed. The hashtag #LetLizSpeak soon erupted, with social media latching on to McConnell’s quote, using it to reference moments in history when women persisted in the face of the patriarchy.
Elizabeth Warren’s experience during that fateful hearing acts as a reminder of the misogyny women politicians must face on a day-to-day basis. It comes the week after female SMP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was woofed at – that’s right, WOOFED at – by her colleague Nicholas Soames in the House of Commons. There is no shortage of instances of blatant sexism towards women in politics, where they are simply trying to do their job. For example, last year stories emerged regarding an abusive senior French MP, one woman politician claiming he had sexually assaulted her following a party meeting. The latest story to make headlines involves MP David Davis’ distasteful texts to a friend following his attempt to ‘embrace’ MP Diane Abbott in the Commons bar.
We should not ignore the gender hierarchy at play in such instances, and the damaging effect it has not just on the women involved, but also on women’s political representation.
Discrimination as a Barrier to Representation
The importance of having women in parliament is well researched. Wolbrecht and Campbell find that female MPs act as role models for young women, having a positive effect on political engagement and, in turn, having the potential to further decrease the gender gap. There is also the argument that substantive representation of women requires female voices in the legislature, as women politicians bring different experiences and knowledge to the policy process. Kittilson, for example, shows how women representatives have a positive effect on maternity and childcare leave. We are, however, no where near achieving gender parity. In 2000, women occupied just 14% of seats in national parliaments globally. 16 years later, this figure has increased to 23%. A noticeable improvement, yes. But not enough.
Why are women still so drastically underrepresented? One answer is that political chambers are “masculine territory”, with reported incidences of misogyny and sexism, such as those previously mentioned, reinforcing this characterisation. Research by Hunt et al suggests exposure to information about the gender discrimination faced by former Australian PM, Julia Gillard, discouraged women who conformed to feminine norms from pursuing a career in politics. Similarly, Lawless finds that the sexist environment of politics means women think they need to be twice as qualified as men to be successful, and so are deterred from running for office. Thankfully, with the rise of social media, it is now easier for women politicians to call out their colleagues’ sexism, as Warren did, and make it clear such behaviour won’t be tolerated within the political sphere or in wider society. Discrimination is not the only barrier to gender parity in politics, but breaking down the state’s patriarchal structures is one of our largest and most important battles.
And so, just like Warren, women will nevertheless persist in the face of misogyny. To quote one MP, when asked if she would still enter politics knowing what she does now: “Of course – don’t let the buggers win”. Our invasion of masculine territory is only just beginning.
 Wolbrecht, Christina & Campbell, David E. “Leading by Example: Female Members of Parliament as Political Role Members” in American Journal of Political Science 51:4 (October 2007) pp. 921-939
 Kittilson, Miki C. “Representing Women: The Adoption of Family Leave in Comparative Perspective” in The Journal of Politics 70:2 (April 2008) pp. 323-334
 Lovenduski, Joni. “The Institutionalisation of Sexism in Politics” in Political Insight 5:2 (2014) pp. 16-19
 Hunt, Christopher J., Gonsalkorale, Karen & Zadro, Lisa. “The Polarising Effect of Female Leaders: Interest in Politics and Perceived Leadership Capability After a Reminder of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister” in European Journal of Social Psychology 44 (2014) pp. 723-729
 Lawless, Jennifer L. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)