Hysteria in the Senate: Shaking the Cage

Something funny happened between the time I originally outlined this post and today. I was to write about leadership and allegiance, spurred by Monday’s “dear leader” meeting in which Trump’s cabinet met as a group for the first time and, at his invitation, went around the room to share what each member was thankful for. What followed was a bit odd. Almost each member felt compelled to lavish effusive praise on POTUS. This is not standard behavior for a group of professional leaders.

Instead, a newer DC incident popped up late yesterday that took me in another direction, a direction I have trod many times before. I am talking how women leaders are judged when doing their job vis-à-vis their male counterparts. It’s an example of the double standard women leaders endure in the perception and judgment of their conduct. The woman in question is California junior senator Kamala Harris.

Harris, by all standards, is impressive. The first woman CA Attorney General, the first woman to be elected District Attorney for San Francisco and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She is an up-and-coming national figure. She also, apparently, brought her prosecutorial training too significantly into the Senate chamber yesterday. She was called out by colleagues while grilling Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his adherence to what he claimed was the policy, and then principle, behind why he was not answering certain questions. In and of itself, being called out might not appear controversial. Congressional hearings are technically not court proceedings, although it is a crime to lie under testimony. Congress likes to think of itself as genteel in these matters but look through scores of judicial, investigative and procedural hearings over the years and you can readily find examples of heated exchanges. What makes calling out Harris’ line of questioning problematic is that her colleague Sen. Angus King (I-ME) repeatedly interrupted Sessions during their exchange. King was not called out by his fellow committee members, not even once. I counted 10 – yes, 10 – points in their back and forth in which King spoke over or interrupted Sessions’ train of thought. So why was Harris called out?

Because she dared to shake the Cage.

The Cage represents the countless behavioral, cultural and social expectations women live by everyday in order to be accepted. You know, Waiting Your Turn, Keeping Your Voice Down, Not Becoming Angry When Passed Over, Always Putting Others First, Not Pushing Too Hard or Acting Ambitious. Women, even and especially women leaders, are rewarded for thinking and acting as culturally appropriate women first, individual human beings second. The reward? Protection, reverence, being thought of as special. Which would be nice if it were consistently rewarded, but it’s not. Even if it were consistently rewarded, being held to a specific standard that does not align entirely with what one may naturally be inside is still a cage, a place where one does not possess full agency. Harris’ infraction was not her participation as a full committee member in the hearings, it was daring to act like her colleague King did. She was subtly yet clearly chastised for forgetting she was being judged as a woman Senator. Her male colleagues were simply perceived as Senators.

Her exchange with Sessions naturally became a topic of cable news debate. The confines of the Cage were illustrated on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 when Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller noted that in his “objective perspective” Harris’ actions were supportive of the opposition party’s hysteria about Russian collusion. When pressed by USA Today’s Kristen Powers to explain, Miller said he thought Harris to be “hysterical” but did not apply the term to other Democrats who were male. A woman, no matter how accomplished or correct or justified in her actions she may be, is judged harshly if she dares shake the Cage by refusing to act like a good woman. Her full agency is not her own, it is borrowed and meted out as appropriate. How can we ever harvest the full power that smart, dedicated women can give to our governments, our institutions, our businesses and our societies if they can only give that power through the bars of a cage? And how can they themselves fully grow within such confines?

Perhaps the answer lies in more hysteria, more nastiness and more cage shaking. Perhaps shaking, and breaking down, the Cage starts with another Senatorial warning thrown at Harris’ colleague, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”






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