Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

March 7, 2021

My Fellow Citizens,

I recently discovered one of my favorite Harriet Tubman quotes. The words describe her. They are not her own but they still speak to why it’s important to hear voices like hers.

Writing in 1875, Harriet Beecher Stowe described Tubman when she visited the famous author’s home several years earlier. This is the quote that made me think about what it might have been like to hear Tubman’s talk:

“An audience was what she wanted, — it mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had things to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to any one.”

Of course Harriet Tubman was a woman with something to say. We remember her with images that convey quiet persistence and a somber purpose, but it really must have been something to hear what she had to say about the day’s events. We imagine that we would give Tubman an audience ourselves if we had the opportunity, but we’re still no good at giving a woman an audience, especially if her message is difficult.

Watching Neera Tanden’s cabinet nomination fail as she was forced to apologize for “mean tweets,” I remembered all the rage I felt after the 2016 election. That rage has persisted not only as a result of the policies that followed. As part of finding my own way through those difficult politics, I had to come to terms with all the ways I had been convinced to quiet my own anger too.

It’s not just women on the public stage that are expected to do this work. If I wanted people to listen to me, I would need to manage my emotional response to any frustration or outrage. At the beginning of my career, I heard this advice from men and women.

I suspect few women on the planet have escaped listening to this advice and having to reckon with it.

I remembered this guidance as I watched Justice Brett Kavanaugh deploy his anger as a confirmation strategy. His outrage became proof of unfair treatment when seeking a lifelong appointment to the Supreme Court. Senator Lindsey Graham summoned his moral outrage on Kavanaugh’s behalf and now uses it on-demand, proving the strength of his convictions. At the time, I struggled to put words to the frustration I felt as I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford meticulously manage every movement and every facial expression in the face of all of the anger directed at her.

If Dr. Ford  wanted anyone to hear what she had to say, she could not afford to even flinch in response.

I’m not writing this note to relitigate any of that. I don’t intend to defend Neera Tanden’s tweets or to counsel you on watching what happens with the confirmation hearings of two other highly qualified women of color, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke. This note is a plea to let women be angry and to listen to them.

Give them an audience. Listen to their anger as though it is proof of their convictions.

Perhaps the anger of women also reflects that they see how we are compromising on our principles. We can learn from them by trying to see what they see.

A book by Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, provided the remedy I needed for the bad advice I received as a young woman.

“When we look to the past with an eye to the future… the discouragement of women’s anger—via silencing, erasure, and represession—stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.” 

In that book, Traister points to an earlier essay by feminist author Laurie Penny and her suggestion that “Many women you know are angrier than you can possibly imagine.” Penny concludes her 2017 essay with a timeless question:

“It’s bad enough that we still have to fight to be treated as full, equal human beings without also being shamed and silenced if the whole situation makes us furious. Yes, we’re angry. Why shouldn’t we be? Why aren’t you?”

Skip the platitudes this month. Ask a woman what she is angry about and listen. We could unleash the power to change something that matters.

Let’s listen and give angry women an audience.

Shellee

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Questions of Civic Proportions

“Defeat should not be the source of discouragement, but a stimulus to keep plotting.”

—Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress

Can we sustain democracy when bipartisanship disappears from the U.S. Congress?

Vox attempts to explain the COVID-relief package in 600 words. Their graph of the different projections of growth in Real GDP is worth considering. They also have the numbers to show the relief package has popular support across voters from both parties. 

Support in the U.S. Senate looks very different. A “vote-a-rama” might sound like the height of democratic activity where Senators could proudly promote bipartisanship. That’s not how it works. 

The Senators first voted on a long list of proposed amendments after enduring a 10+ hour delay when Senator Ron Johnson pushed a measure requiring Senate clerks to read the 628 pages of the COVID Relief bill aloud. Many Washington observers believe these performances make it clear that there is no bipartisanship to be had in Washington, D.C.

For The New York Times, Carl Hulse writes, “After Stimulus Victory in Senate, Reality Sinks in: Bipartisanship Is Dead.”

Under the headline, “The Founders Were Wrong about Democracy,” David Frum writes in The Atlantic:
 

“Policy continuity, the security of public debts, the peaceful transfer of power by legal means: These are upheld by the American majority. But a political minority is pushing the country toward the evils supposedly associated with pure democracy: extreme ideologies, the normalization of violence, and the insecurity of public debts.”

The subtitle makes it clear exactly how the founders miscalculated, “The authors of the Constitution feared mass participation would unsettle government, but it’s the privileged minority that has proved destabilizing.

Is identity politics a strategy for sowing division?

One other book helped me come to terms with my bad attitude over elections won and lost. I resisted the hype but recently read Stacey Abrams’ book, Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. I needed to learn from her resolve. 

In parts, the book reads like a typical campaign memoir. There are also moments where Abrams’ experience, perspective, and resilience cut straight through all the talking points that are allowed to stand unchallenged.

While pundits, operatives, and political scientists have all debated whether identity politics is destructive to our public sphere, Abrams skips the definition of terms:
 

“Single-strand identities do not exist in a household, let alone in a nation. When America is at its best, we acknowledge the complexity of our societies and the complicating reality of how we experience this country—and its obstacles. Yet we never lose sight of the fact that we all want the same thing. We want education. We want economic security. We want health care. Identity politics pushes leaders to understand that because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity, and national origin, people confront obstacles that stem from these identities. Successful leaders who wish to engage the broadest coalition of voters have to demonstrate that they understand that the barriers are not uniform and, moreover, that they have plans to tackle these impediments. The greatest politicians display both of these capacities, and they never forget that the destination—regardless of identity—is the same: safety, security, and opportunity.” 

In The New York Times review of the book, Tayari Jones describes Abrams’ philosophy for political change as “protest plus participation.” That sounds like a win for us all. 

Good Work: Unstereotype Alliance and Women in Leadership

A gallery of Getty images that “accurately portray what women look like in leadership roles” is a mark of their work. The Unstereotype Alliance is the work of the United Nations Women, and they have a manifesto that  starts with this:

“Unchallenged, harmful stereotypes are a root cause of gender discrimination and inequality. As long as these attitudes are perpetuated and reinforced in advertising and media culture, we cannot hope to achieve a truly equal world…”

 

Seeking to challenge these stereotypes in advertising, the Unstereotype Alliance worked with Getty Images to curate a gallery titled “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World.” Rebecca Swift,  global head of creative insights at Getty Images, told Ad Week that the collection includes 200 images that reflect a “new look and management style.”

No blazer required. No need to look like a man in a suit or to strike a power pose. In this gallery, women wear high-visibility vests on construction sites, drive semi-trailers, manage the farm, coach the team, and prepare for surgery.

The gallery supports an essential conversation for this year’s International Women’s Day. On their website, UN Women tell the story like this:

 

“When women lead, we see positive results. Some of the most efficient and exemplary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were led by women. And women, especially young women, are at the forefront of diverse and inclusive movements online and on the streets for social justice, climate change and equality in all parts of the world. Yet, women under 30 are less than 1 percent of parliamentarians worldwide.”
 
That’s the power to change the world if we can give them an audience.

 

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