Environmental Scientist. Writer. Mother.

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On Authority and Punishment

We’ve all seen the video. A few days ago, as Elizabeth Warren read the words of Coretta Scott King to protest the nomination of Jeff Sessions as United States Attorney General, Mitch McConnell invoked Rule 19, an old and seldom-used provision of the Senate Rules to silence her, to pull the plug, to shut her up.

The move was unexpected, swift and decisive. And as I watched the events unfold on my screen, a certain rage rose within me, not only for the injustice at hand —that an old Southern man would not allow a woman to re-read words already entered into the public record by the late First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement, relevant words concerning Jeff Sessions’ demonstrated character— but for all the times women have been shut down when the truths uttered from their lips have been sharp and inconvenient.

Many years ago —almost as many years ago as when Rule 19 was established— the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage distributed flyers filled with rhetoric like, “Housewives! You do not need a ballot to clean your sink spout. A handful of potash and some boiling water is quicker and cheaper.”  And “Vote NO on Woman Suffrage because it is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

The evil which may occur. That phrase glistens for me, like an oil slick on water.

I have a memory —one that I cannot confirm because I no longer speak to the man involved, and even if I did, he would most likely deny any recollection of such an event— but when I was very young, maybe four or five years old, I was shopping in a grocery store with my father and doing something mischievous enough to arrest his attention. I don’t recall whether I had reached for an unauthorized item on a shelf, maybe some candy or sugared cereal, or perhaps I even grabbed a glass jar of something that slipped from from my grip and crashed to the floor, splattering sticky fluid all over our feet. None of those details rise to the surface, but what does is my father’s sudden delivery of half-dozen wallops to my backside.

Not that spanking itself was unusual or uncommon in those days, nor that this particular instance was especially harsh, but the public nature of it was jarring — if for no other reason than the presence of a woman, an older woman, who stood and watched my punishment in the aisle of the neighborhood Pick-N-Pay.

What I remember most clearly was not the sting of my father’s open palm, nor the precipitating event itself, but this: a woman stared at a man spanking his child in the aisle of the Pick-N-Pay and opened her mouth in protest.

To which my father grumbled something like, “Mind your own business, Lady.”

The Senator will take her seat.

These kinds of moments collect in the mind of a girl, gathered like acorns and leaves with serrated edges, stowed in pockets for later use in the constructs of her real and imaginary worlds. Their dried fragments remain long after she has outgrown her coat, the detritus clinging stubbornly to the pilled fabric of her pocket lining.

I was not a child who questioned authority. And though it would take me years to fully understand, something in that old woman’s watery eyes told me that what was happening in that aisle was less about me or her or whatever I had done, and more about the preservation of authority itself.

Rule 19 was established in 1902 because a fist-fight broke out between two South Carolina Senators on the Senate floor, over an accusation that one had been the victim of the other’s malicious lie. But I think it’s relevant to note that the violent outburst —the one that precipitated the establishment of Rule 19 in the first place— was initiated by the senior senator involved, Senator Benjamin Tillman, an unapologetic racist who believed in lynching to keep black people in their place.

It is not lost on me that the very provision used to silence Elizabeth Warren’s recital of Coretta Scott King’s letter about Jeff Sessions —a man whose fitness for the position of Attorney General is tainted by his previous racist remarks and actions— is also steeped in deeply racist history. It is not lost on me that the provision used to silence Elizabeth Warren comes from an era of anti-woman suffrage.

I feel this truth with as much certainty as I feel the inner lining of my empty pockets, which is to say that the silencing of Elizabeth Warren this week was an abuse of authority for no other purpose than the preservation of authority itself.  Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon both read passages from King’s letter without incident. But for boldly speaking without omission the parallel opinion of a female Civil Rights icon, Elizabeth Warren was forced to shut her mouth and abstain from her participation in the official debate.  Make no mistake: the echoes of our racist and misogynist past vibrate through the halls of Congress almost as loud and clear as they did more than a century ago.



About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.


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