22 October 2018
‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is fast becoming one of my favourite phrases. It seems so much more meaningful a statement of what women need to do today than ‘me too’. And, what’s even better – is that it was supplied by one of the arch-opponents of the advancement of women, the leader of the Republican Party in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell.
McConnell was moved to coin the phrase when Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking in a debate he was chairing, would not give back the floor before finishing her points about the manipulation of the African-American vote – including invoking the memory of Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. ‘She was warned’, McConnell later said, ‘nevertheless, she persisted’. In case that sounds simply like a harassed chairman doing his job, we also need to bear in mind that this is the same Mitch McConnell who, when interviewed recently about why there are relatively few women in the Senate, thought that it might be because it’s really hard work and maybe women don’t want to do work of that sort.
So I’m very glad that ‘nevertheless, she (Senator Warren) persisted’’. And I’m very glad that it was a woman Senator who had the courage to fight for racial equality – I shouldn’t need to say it, but it shows that having women in these positions in public life is not just about gender equality. It can also be about bringing a different perspective to a whole range of issues. As I’ve often written before in these blogs and elsewhere, we don’t just need to have more women in influential positions. We need them, when they reach those positions, to find their own voice and to have the courage to be authentic and to question what they find, and behave differently from men when it is justified.
Let me just quote a couple of examples of why I think ‘nevertheless, she persisted’ is such a good motto for where the gender equality debate is today.
First, I was fascinated (and, I must say, completely shocked) to read back in August that senior officials at Tokyo Medical University had for years been manipulating the test scores of female applicants wanting to train as doctors. They wanted to keep the number of women medical students at about 30 per cent, so they had been altering, for at least a decade, the computerised marking system. The reason? They wanted to reduce the risk of a shortage of doctors at their affiliated hospitals because some of them believed that female doctors tended to resign or take long periods of leave after getting married or giving birth.
Second, you may have seen, closer to home and just last week, the case of Darcy Yarnold. Darcy is a seven-year-old girl from Blackpool who loves football and plays with boys her age in a mixed team. She has been inspired by the Women’s Super League which has meant that growing up to play professional football is now a genuine option (although not quite on the same pay scales…). Anyway, the issue that drew Darcy to the attention of the national media was that she often finds that the boys she is playing against – and their parents, in fact the parents even more so – refuse to shake her hand after the match – because the football pitch is for boys and Darcy, by being there, is depriving a boy of the opportunity to play.
Very different examples from very different contexts, of course. But both really make the case for why we must all persist. There has been progress of course; nevertheless the fight must go on. In fact the progress that has been made brings with it its own risks. It’s too easy for men (and some women) to point to the new opportunities that have started to open up for women as evidence that full equality has been obtained, when this is far from the case. It is then easy to blame women for ‘not leaning in’ and for still being under-represented, as Mitch McConnell was doing.
There are certainly far more opportunities for girls and women, but we have not yet done enough to put women (and girls) in a position to take them up. Where we really need to persist is in encouraging and embedding new social attitudes in our culture – whether they are about the value of women’s sport, or flexible working, or fathers who share childcare responsibilities. These are the kinds of change that will be the foundations of real equality, but I suspect they will take much longer to achieve than changing the law ever did.
Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne
Photo of Coretta Scott King
Catherine Ursillo, Rights Managed