Gender equality, framing, and the rules of the game

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Last week, once again, Senator Kamala Harris was interrupted in Congress while she questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions about why he wouldn’t disclose his conversations with President Trump.

Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser and CNN commentator said Senator Harris was “hysterical.”

Women on social and traditional media saw the perfect frame for their outrage: women are interrupted everywhere and we need to say something. Some of the headlines were: “Kamala Harris Once Again Interrupted By Male Colleagues During Senate Hearing” (Huffington Post), “When Kamala Harris and women everywhere do their job well, they get called ‘hysterical’” (Los Angeles Times), “Kamala Harris Is (Again) Interrupted While Pressing a Senate Witness” (New York Times), “Watch Two Republican Men Shush Kamala Harris in a Senate Hearing” (Slate blog), or “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women” (New York Times).

But let’s dissect the facts: what do we have? And what does it mean?

We have a senator questioning a witness in Congress.

The senator asks a question. The witness starts to answer, but the senator speaks over his voice–his answer doesn’t satisfy her. She asks again; the witness starts to speak, and then stops because the senator speaks louder–the senator interrupts the witness.

Then, when Senator Harris continues to speak over Senator Sessions’s words, Senator McCain, demanding that the witness “be allowed to answer the question,” cuts her off. In that moment, the Chairman, Senator Burr, echoes Senator McCain in his request and asks Senator Harris to stop talking. Smiling, Senator Harris points out that the witness is using a filibuster tactic to avoid giving a direct answer. Implicitly, she accuses the witness of wasting the time she has to ask him questions.

So, what do we have? We have a senator, who happens to be a woman, fiercely and doggedly questioning a witness, who happens to be a man, in Congress. And then we have two senators, who happen to be men, requesting that the other senator, their political opponent, stop talking.

And what does it mean? It means that politics is a harsh, tense game. In this instance, two Republican senators protect their man, the witness, against their opponent, Democrat Senator Harris.

Was Senator Harris hysterical? No. Was Jason Miller right when he said so? Obviously not. But was he entitled to state a subjective opinion in order to criticize a political opponent? Yes, by all means.

Now, do women have to listen to and internalize this type of pejorative critique? No.

Framing the issue as a once-again-girl-interrupted instance works against gender equality. While it’s true that women are often interrupted when they speak, the solution is not for women to ask for protection. The solution is for women to stand up and speak more loudly–yes, as Richard Edelman suggested–, and to refuse relinquishing our power, right and time to speak.

Dr. Lois P. Frankel, in her book Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, recommends women to utter a simple sentence when someone interrupts them: “Excuse me, I’m not finished.”

The fact is, if we want to play the game, we need to accept the rules. Senator Harris accepted the rules and showed she wasn’t offended or threatened by them. She showed real power, although someone else had the authority to silence her–the Chairman.

People labelling us is not our problem. People interrupting us is not our problem–even if they’re men. Our problem is having a reason to speak, demonstrating the courage and power to stand up for what is ours and use our own authority. Or leave. Or go on strike.

Or say no.

The exchange between Senator Kamala Harris and Senators Burr and McCain was not an example of “women, interrupted everywhere” as some people have framed it. On the contrary, it was a proof that “Senator Harris stands up for her beliefs and powerfully plays the game by the rules.”

And the rules say that if you interrupt, you may be interrupted.

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