By Jennifer Lynch, Ph.D.
The vice-presidential debates ignited a firestorm of tweets, social media posts, op-eds, blogs, and memes. While the fly took center stage, Mike Pence’s condescending mansplaining interruptions was a close second. Around the nation, women were outraged at his behavior. The Vice President hit a chromosomal nerve that is always exposed, throbbing and tender from constant abuse.
Women are not new to what happened on the debate stage. Mike Pence’s freedom to break the rules, or at least re-interpret them for his benefit, solidified the collective female experience. At some point, all women have smiled, nodded, apologized, and asked politely for their fair shake only to be railroaded yet again. Throughout history women have painstakingly remained inside the lines and under the radar, trying to carve out a place for themselves, tiptoeing around the mine field of potential offenses in a world defined by powerful white men.
Women brave enough to enter the arena will not escape unscathed; men desperate to hold on to power will deploy arsenals of tactics often invisible yet so closely tied to national, racial, religious, and gender identities that the B-21 bomber looks clumsy in comparison. As women, we understand that our legitimacy is constantly at risk. A savvy attack draws upon mythical female identities of temptress, deceiver, child bearer, and servant. These identities have been written, taught, and codified in mythology, history books, fairytales, laws, and policies; our collective familiarity with this narrative provides truth to the attack. It is therefore not surprising that collectively women often find themselves willing co-conspirators in these attacks, working against their own best interest. These attacks pair the subtle with the legitimate to ensure a direct hit. Women are often left with a feeling, but little concrete evidence.
As it turns out, Mike Pence is neither invisible nor subtle. His performance this week was clunky and disingenuous and recklessly on display for millions of viewers. His attempted use of the pity face, condescending tone, and over-speak was sophomoric. During his performance, he implied that Kamala Harris, a highly qualified United States Senator and former Attorney General of California, was a crazy, uninformed, unqualified liar. His boss summarized the approach a few days later: she was quite simply, a monster. His use of tired and dated barbs fell flat on men and inflamed women. He doubled down on his approach by interpreting Senator Harris’ feelings for her, undermining her expertise, distorting her words to his advantage and then intentionally preventing her from rebuttal. His final punch was a flaccid attempt at excising Senator Harris from her femininity by insinuating she did not value prenatal life and suburban values. His performance put into concrete terms what has been so elusive for most women to define and describe. The Vice President put it all front and center.
As a woman, I would like to thank Mr. Pence for his anemic performance at the vice presidential debate. He pulled back the curtain and ignited a national conversation. Instead of diminishing women, he created a collective movement empowering them. Kamala Harris’ performance at the debate demonstrated that women are deliberate, controlled, measured, and knowledgeable. While it is disappointing that a woman running for vice-president still has to smile and ask politely for an opportunity to speak, my hope is that this will serve as a pivotal moment that elevates us all. As the Notorious RBG once said, “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Dr. Jennifer Lynch is an elementary school principal. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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