'Nevertheless, She Persisted' and the Age of the Weaponized Meme

'Nevertheless, She Persisted' and the Age of the Weaponized Meme

There are many ways that American culture tells women to be quiet—many ways they are reminded that they would really be so much more pleasing if they would just smile a little more, or talk a little less, or work a little harder to be pliant and agreeable. Women are, in general, extremely attuned to these messages; we have, after all, heard them all our lives.

And so: When presiding Senate chair Steve Daines, of Montana, interrupted his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, as she was reading the words of Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor on Tuesday evening—and, then, when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell intervened to prevent her from finishing the speech—many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt that silencing, viscerally. And when McConnell, later, remarked of Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt it again. Because, regardless of their politics or place, those women have heard the same thing, or a version of it, many times before.

All of that helps to explain why, today, “Silencing Liz Warren” and #LetLizSpeak are currently trending on social media platforms—and why, along with them, “She Persisted” has become a meme that is already “an instant classic.” It also helps to explain why you can now buy a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirt, or hoodie, or smartphone case, or mug, each item featuring McConnell’s full explanation—warned, explanation, persisted—scrawled, in dainty cursive, on its surface. As the feminist writer Rebecca Traister noted of the majority leader’s words: “‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is likely showing up on a lot of protest signs this weekend.” And it’s likely to keep showing up—a testament to another thing American culture has told its women: that “silence” doesn’t have to equal silence.

It started like this: On Tuesday evening, during a late-night Senate session debating President Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to become attorney general, Warren used her time at the podium to read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had written about Sessions in 1986. King, a civil rights leader in her own right, was opposing Sessions’s potential (and, later, realized) elevation from U.S. attorney to federal judge. Warren began reading the words King had written (to then-Senator Strom Thurmond): “It has been a long uphill struggle to keep alive the vital legislation that protects the most fundamental right to vote. A person who has exhibited so much hostility to the enforcement of those laws”—

At this point, Daines, the senator presiding over the session, interrupted Warren, citing Senate Rule XIX and its stipulation that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” The matter was put to a vote; it went down party lines; Warren was not permitted to continue. After this, McConnell was asked to explain himself and his party’s silencing of his Senate colleague.

And then: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And with it, as the Chicago Tribune put it: “Mitch McConnell, bless his heart, has coined a new feminist rally cry.” Indeed: On the internet, “Nevertheless, she persisted” was applied to images not just of Warren and King, but also of Harriet Tubman, and Malala Yousafzai, and Beyoncé, and Emmeline Pankhurst, and Gabby Giffords, and Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and Princess Leia. It accompanied tags that celebrated #TheResistance.