KAMALA HARRIS’ ‘I AM SPEAKING’ MOMENT WAS THE ONE WOMEN HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR
Women are used to being interrupted. They are accustomed to leaving ideas unsaid and monitoring conversations like air-traffic controllers, waiting for one more opportunity to take off. As awareness grows about the challenges facing women’s voices, many people have become experts at watching for inequities in events like debates. In October’s vice presidential debate, they saw something new. While the talk time for each candidate was likely still far from equal, Kamala Harris changed the game when she insisted on finishing her thought after an attempted interruption. She simply turned and said, “Mr. Vice President. I’m speaking. I’m speaking.”
What Harris did represented a watershed moment. While recently, Vice President Joe Biden used techniques that typically work well for defending your conversational space from interruption — like holding up a hand to say ‘stop,’ refusing to grant permission to the interrupter by making eye contact, or engaging in verbal games of chicken to see who will yield first – Harris simply insisted on her right to be heard. She claimed the importance of her own voice in a way that is startling for a woman on the national political stage.
By now women know that if they wait to be invited to finish their thoughts, or to accrue enough power to develop the kind of interruption-repelling immunity that men seem to have, they will wait a very long time. Even female justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are interrupted three times as often as their male counterparts, according to research from Tonja Jacobi Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. And they are interrupted not only by other justices, but by advocates before the court, people of presumably lower status. And research suggests women of color on the court are interrupted at even higher rates.
Most of this is now familiar. Today, we have a shared lexicon with words like “manterrupted,” and “manpropriating” to describe the experience of speaking while female. What we’re still lacking is an equally widespread agreement on the importance of women’s voices.
Even today, we don’t socialize women and girls to recognize their own entitlement to speak, or to bask in the sound of their own voices, or to assume as a default position, that other people will want to hear what they have to say. Women are still raised from the same playbook as Cordelia in King Lear, praised for having voices that are “ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.”
Many women are uncomfortable with interrupting or halting an interruption-in-progress for many reasons. It may run contrary to their family culture, or they may prefer to find a different work-around. Sometimes they send post-meeting emails to get their ideas on the board. Other times they ask a male colleague to share their ideas for them.
But even if women embrace the skill of interruption, as men have done, they still find themselves a step or two removed from a level playing field. Before they even begin to speak, most men assume they have the right to do so, while most women have two mountains to climb. They have to convince everyone in the room that their voice is important, and then, they have to convince themselves — twice as much mental work.
At the VP debate, USA Today moderator Susan Page tried to re-route the conversation before Harris was done speaking. Mike Pence piled on with an interruption. But Harris didn’t wait for someone to validate her voice, she didn’t ask to be excused or forgiven. She granted herself the license to be heard. She said, “I am speaking.”
Eventually, as the social fabric of our country begins to welcome and be inclusive of women’s voices and the voices of people of color and new voices of all kinds, the needle will move on who gets to talk and who deserves our attention. In the meantime, Harris demonstrated what it looks like to grant yourself permission to speak and to hold your own voice in the highest regard. T-shirts with her words are already being sold.
Harris is the first African-American and South Asian to be nominated for Vice President. She is a U.S. Senator and former Attorney General of California. She deserves our attention and our respect, and she knows it. Being there to witness that knowing felt like the earth shaking just a little. It felt like power.