Elizabeth Warren has been speaking her mind ever since honing her talents in high school debating competitions. If her straight-talking has made her a frontrunner in the US presidential race, why can’t it work for all of us?
Fifty years ago, in the summer of ‘65, a teenager named Liz Herring with “straight brown bangs” from Oklahoma City sailed to victory in the Bellaire Debate tournament in Texas. Her challenger, Ted Siff, recalled feeling confident against the demure young woman, until she opened her mouth and showcased an impenetrable debating style that belied her 16 years. “I remember this 16-year-old girl who was a firecracker questioner, rapid-fire questioner,” he said. “Those were new questions, those were new arguments…We were stunned.” The girl in question was, of course, Elizabeth Warren.
Below, writer Alicia Lutes explores the story of Warren’s straight-talking style - and how, fifty years later, it made her a US Senator.
At a recent MSNBC Town Hall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren was asked, point blank, whether she believed former Vice President Joe Biden was wrong about the Hyde Amendment. The first word out of her mouth? “Yes.” A simple, to the point, matter-of-fact yes. It was the prelude to an impassioned and powerfully frank dressing-down of who is really impacted by laws against abortion and reproductive health freedom for people with uteruses: poor people, women of colour, young people – the people already disadvantaged by our social systems.
Part of the reason Warren’s words have gone viral is due to how her directness lies in stark contrast with many in her line of work. Political leaders – even the most well-intended among them – have a tendency to talk over and around the questions they are asked in order to pivot to one of their predetermined talking points.
Warren, unlike her counterparts, talks to and through the question at hand, despite the fact that to say something definitive means she’s guaranteed to upset at least a portion of an increasingly vocal and connected electorate that can let you know exactly how they feel about what you have to say at any given moment. It isn’t an easy thing for anyone to do. Especially for women who are so often raised to demure and deflect.
I’ve long suffered from the inability to be direct, even with a particularly, compulsively vocal personality. But from near-infancy, women are groomed to contain themselves in the least offensive manner possible (especially us louder ones). And it’s constantly reaffirmed by our society: be quieter, smaller, more polite – say less and acquiesce more. You must accommodate the whims of men, soothe their weary souls; do the emotional labour for everyone around you, but don’t talk about it out loud. Because it is your duty and role as a woman, because that’s what societal expectations have just pre-determined for you.
It’s scary, sometimes, to say the quiet thing out loud. To say the words we know are right in the moment. We are not always commended for it.
To give volume to the words and thoughts we’re thinking, especially in the era of Drumpf (I will not speak the President’s name) means to speak out, often against people in positions of power, who actively deny reality and facts. The leaders of our cultural conversations are aggressively asserting their feelings and versions of reality to the point that the whole of the United States is being completely gaslit. Everything about trying to ‘right’ anything about that can feel hopeless. People not only survive, but thrive, on lies and bullying oppression. But there’s a tonic to quell the indigestion that is plaguing our modern times (just go with me here): being direct. And if it’s working for Warren, who is now polling third in the Democratic nominee race, why can’t it work for all of us?
We live in a world of lie-laced riddles; of venture capitalism and marketing; of business interest whims and an increasingly suffocating world economy, of speculation based on ideals of the past, sending everyone into preservation mode. In this day and age, being direct sets you apart from the pack.
But women who are direct are called myriad names and are often reprimanded, or worse, you cry! And I know! It has been that way for millennia. The past three years have shown us, however, that the world is changing rapidly, which means we have to take a leap with it and do the things we are scared to do, the thing we have been socialized not to do. We have to assert our reality and truth as confidently as men have been socialized to do. Because women, especially, gain nothing by not being direct and straightforward. Even if it makes some people uncomfortable; and maybe especially if it causes that. Powerful people feeling discomfort at our metaphorical hand is the only way things change: at work, in our personal lives, and in the government. Well-behaved women rarely make history, or so I’ve heard. The more plainly we speak our own thoughts and feelings on the matter, the more power we get to take back for us.
Our words contain power, and the way we wield them effectively is by being direct when expressing our truths, especially if it feels like a radical but necessary act. Because isn’t that what leadership is?
Being direct about how he feels – no matter how many lies his words contain – is exactly what got the President elected to the highest office in the United States of America in the first place. He “told it like it is,” as so many people have claimed. In the past it may have been the case, but who says women being direct won’t have a more positively galvanizing effect? Be as cynical as you want about it, but we’re living in a post-Time’s Up, #MeToo era, and there has been some major change, for as much of the equality road we have yet to travel.
Sure, history hasn’t always been kind to a direct and honest woman: but aren’t we tired of assuming what happened in history is our inevitable future? Because honestly, says who? And why should that stop us from trying again? No one who’s ever overcome a great injustice did so by passively giving up the fight in the face of what came before and a couple naysayers. After all, what else do we have to lose?
Women are losing our rights and autonomy by the second in the United States (and many more the world over have had it even harder for longer) whether we play by their rules or not. They want us to be indirect so they have a loophole to latch onto; the more we give them, the better. The pace of social revolution takes as long as evolution, and our words can cut to the heart of that. The more plainly we speak our own thoughts and feelings on the matter, the more power we get to take back, and the sooner we make the world better for the rest of us.
Passive, mild women are easy to dismiss – Elizabeth Warren knows that and so she flies in defiance of it. Think of her next time your inner and outer voices feel as though they’re in conflict: say exactly what you mean, and mean it when you say it, because if everything left is right, up is down, and right is wrong in the year 2019, we have to cut the proverbial bullshit and be self-assured. We have to do what bristles up against the status quo: say what “the rest of us” are thinking – the other side already does, regardless of its merits or actual veracity. If you align your head and your heart, the words will be right, so long as you get to the point. There won’t be a better time than now.