In 1991, Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee as the all-male panel racked its brains to understand why she would keep showing up to work after her boss, Clarence Thomas, made unwanted advances at her. The image of a gang of white men blaming a black woman for her own harassment eventually led to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s appointment as the first woman to serve on the committee, which now boasts three.
Three women also serve on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, but that did not have the opposite effect on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who testified last Tuesday.
Instead, the boy’s club of fellow Republicans made him feel right at home with friendly banter about college sports, the blessed state of his marriage, and Jason Bourne movies. The backyard BBQ was going great until Sen. Kamala Harris, the second black woman ever to serve in the most exclusive club in America, showed up to do her job.
In the clipped patter of a career prosecutor, she demanded to know if Sessions could cite the policy he was using to avoid answering questions about his communications with the President. Sessions tried to filibuster but Harris cut him off, earning a rebuke from the committee chairman:
“Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing. Senator Harris, let him answer.”
Harris was not the first to criticize Sessions for failing to answer the question. Earlier, he’d managed to defend himself from Sen. Ron Wyden, who hurled high-decibel accusations of stonewalling without interruption.
But she was the only one to intimidate him: “I don’t like to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous,” he whimpered.
Fortunately, the boys had his back. For the second time in a week, Sen. John McCain rushed to the defense of a witness at Harris’ mercy, imploring Chairman Richard Burr to silence her so Sessions could run out the clock.
And he did – only to answer the same question moments later when Sen. Jack Reed asked it in more soothing tones.
Harris didn’t do anything her colleagues couldn’t get away with, except threaten their racial and gender privilege by her very existence.
The fear is so great that a former Trump spokesman turned CNN commentator projected his own panic onto Harris, calling her “hysterical,” a loaded term that another talking-head defended as “neutral.”
In fact, “hysteria” is derived from the Latin, meaning “of the womb,” and until 1980 was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a personality disorder unique to women. The cure? A hysterectomy. Physicians used to regularly institutionalize women for symptoms such as “irrationality” and “outbursts.”
Like talking too much.
A day before the Senate hearing, an Uber board member cracked a sexist joke in response to a comment about the multiplier effect of adding more women to the board: “actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”
Of course, the research shows that the reverse is true. When women are outnumbered by men in a group, they speak less and get interrupted more. Often their ideas are cannibalized by men, who claim and receive credit for them. It’s why women in the Obama White House used a strategy called “amplification” to identify the origin of their ideas by constantly referring back to each other as the source.
In general, and particularly for women of color, self-assurance is mistaken for hostility, while men earn status by assuming command.
As a result, as linguist Deborah Tannen observed in her 1994 classic, “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” female speech is littered with expressions of concern, and collective pronouns to avoid the appearance of bragging or bossiness.
But Kamala Harris was not at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to make the attorney general feel better, and so she was reprimanded for it.
Grenell is a political consultant.