Navigating Speed Bumps in the High Road
“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
On Feb. 4, shortly after trump had finished his State of the Union Address, Nancy Pelosi visibly stood behind him and made a loud and clear statement by ripping up the notes from his speech. Since then, little has been said about the contents of the address, which has been overshadowed by the chatter surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s actions. If her goal was to steal the show, her actions were effective. Now, some are declaring her Washington’s #1 Bad Ass Woman, while others claim that she failed to take the high road and cast shame on her party.
I’m sure that in 2016 when Michelle Obama made “When they go low, we go high” a popular mantra for liberals, she only meant the best. And I want to be clear, I don’t entirely disagree with the concept of taking the high road. I just disagree with how that exact concept has taken on misogynistic (and racist) undertones and is being used to silence and oppress people—women in particular—while allowing the patriarchy and white nationalism to thrive.
From Representative Maxine Waters Speaking over Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin repeatedly in an effort to reclaim her time to Senator Warren’s famous “Nevertheless she persisted” moment while debating trumps nomination of Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, to Pelosi’s speech ripping moment during the State of the Union address–progressive women are constantly coming under fire for “not taking the high road” every time they use their words or actions stand up against the wrongdoings taking place in America. Suddenly “the high road” is starting to sound and feel a whole lot like some of the 1950’s household messages I was raised with as a young girl.
“Don’t show your temper”, “Don’t interrupt”, “Don’t emasculate him”, “Only speak when you are spoken to”, “Smile, don’t scowl”, “A lady doesn’t swear”, “Don’t leave the house without makeup on”, and, “Never ever raise your voice out of anger.” You get the point.
Look, I don’t blame my mother for trying to raise me by the rules she had learned as a young child. But I didn’t buy them then and I eventually grew to understand them for what they were: the patriarchy’s way of controlling women.
Why the Patriarchy’s Shush Culture Needs to Die
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Dr Martin Luther King Jr
The American patriarchy has done a real good job of creating an oppressive and submissive definition of femininity and what a woman ought to be like in order to be considered respectable. We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we have an opinion and are outspoken and don’t fall in line, then we are no longer ladylike or deserving of respect. And let’s be clear, while it was originally thought that the stereotypical roles of gender identity (male/female) were innate, we have since come to understand that femininity and masculinity are not innate but are based upon social and cultural conditions.
Unfortunately, in America, when women act out or speak up for themselves or others, they immediately encounter the “shush culture”. They are called unprofessional or disrespectful or petty or attention seeking. And the “shush culture” applies to both their words and actions. We see this in how women who run for the office of President are talked about, and we see this in how women who attempt to ascend to almost any position of power are treated.
“Is she likable?”, “She’s so bossy”, “She comes across as being so harsh”, “She’s kind of manly don’t you think?”, “Her voice just gets on my nerves”, “Did you see what she was wearing”, “She was trying too hard when she drank that beer.”
I’ve heard all of these things said about powerful women. The worst part is that they are often said by other women.
The patriarchy’s hush culture is key to its existence. Keeping women quiet, keeping them afraid of standing up and saying what needs to be said is an absolute necessity. Because when women start speaking out and acting out (peacefully) without the fear of reprisal and being labeled “disrespectful”, they gain power and influence. So, having the ability to dash a woman’s “respectability” every time she speaks out is a super useful tool because no respect = no power.
Thus, the shush culture needs to die.
How Taking the High Road Has Become a Tool for the Patriarchy
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
When Michelle Obama and the Democratic party adopted the idea of taking the high road, I believe all intentions were good. We were caught in a political cycle that included a Presidential candidate making fun of people with special needs, vomiting sexist comments left and right, coming up with weird insulting pet names for his opponents and basically acting and talking like a high school bully. And people were eating it up! They were loving it. So, the idea was that the democratic party would not normalize that behavior by participating in it.
Sounds good right? Well, it has really backfired. And, female politicians have gotten the worst of it. It is our job, as decent people, to stand up for what is right. It our job, as decent people, to speak out against the human rights violations that are taking place in America today. And it is every politician’s job to say something and do something when they witness blatant lies and high crimes taking place on Capitol Hill. It is literally Nancy Pelosi’s job to do something when she witnesses trump lying to the public.
Conservative comments about Nancy Pelosi’s actions mostly consist of some version of saying she was petty and a sore loser. It’s expected. Not a surprise. But what really boils my blood is the reaction from democrats who say that Pelosi’s rip heard round the world was unprofessional and disrespectful.
Pelosi did her job even while in the midst of managing the insanity of trumps impeachment trial. She introduced trump. She gracefully ignored his rude refusal to shake her hand. She sat through a divisive, partisan speech riddled with blatant lies. And then she did what needed to be done and staged a peaceful protest that pulled everyone’s attention with one fast motion.
It wasn’t rude or disrespectful. It was bold and a bad ass move. And if it had been done by a man, he’d likely be considered a liberal hero.
In this case, Nancy Pelosi didn’t use her words to make a statement, she used her actions and they sent a clear message. “I will not normalize this. I will not act like what is happening is ok.” As Martin Luther King said himself, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” I say, this holds true for a woman as well.
Those saying Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren–or any other woman who speaks out, protests, and refuses to be interrupted–is not taking the high road is playing right into the misogyny of our country’s shush and shame culture. We need to praise every person who stands up for what’s right. We need to prop up every person who takes a stand in defense of justice. We need to show respect for every person who defends what true. Even when that person is a woman.