Ever since the debate, the ThinkPiece Industrial Complex* has been in overdrive, pointing out that what seems so galling here – that he spoke 2/3 of the time while she patiently, politely, humored him, that he interrupted her no less than 51 times when she finally had a chance to speak – is a reality American women negotiate every day. And it’s true – study after study establishes that men dominate conversation time, in real life and in media. Again and again there’s proof that both men AND women interrupt women much more frequently than they interrupt men. To say nothing of the reality that qualified women are so often competing to be heard over men who have no idea WTF they are talking about. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago, the internet was ablaze with the One Weird Trick Women Used to be Heard in the Obama Administration, proving that even when women ARE invited into the Room Where It Happens by men who overtly value their insights, they still have to develop strategies to make sure these men HEAR THEM and give them credit for their own ideas over the deafening din of assumptions and expectations and implicit bias.
What fascinates me, though, is that we noticed at all, and why. Why, if this is so much a part of our culture, are we all suddenly talking about it? Why did so many men note what an amazing accomplishment it is that Hillary did not explode in anger and frustration, if it is true that we are conditioned to expect women to be polite, to not even notice that men always dominate the conversations?
Part of it was the stage, of course. We have the first woman who is seriously contending for the presidency of the United States, running against not just a man, but a man who embodies the sick misogynist false ideal of hyper-masculinity. The “strongman” bully who derides opponents as losers, who equates strength with aggression, who promises order through physical intimidation and violence. But I think the answer goes beyond that. We didn’t just notice how unacceptable his behavior was because of the stark contrast.
We noticed because she didn’t cave. When it was officially his turn to speak, she let him speak, with admirable grace (grace modifying her patience, NOT his speech!). A patience that yes, many women practice all the time. But we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all if that were her whole reaction. No, we *noticed,* we’re *talking* about this, because she did something else far more novel. Men everywhere interrupt women – but until last night, very few of us had seen what it looks like when the interrupted woman just *goes right on speaking.*
We noticed his interrupting because she didn’t cede the floor. If she had, all of our cultural assumptions would have come rushing in to fill the void, and we would have seen him as strong, would have accepted the interruption as his taking control of the conversation. But she didn’t do that. She didn’t lash out, she didn’t get angry, but she almost never acknowledged his outbursts in any way – she just kept talking, with the result that his interruptions didn’t look like a confident man controlling the conversation, they looked petulant and childish and rude. On a few occasions, she replied directly to what he’d said – but then she held on to the floor, returning seamlessly to her original point. She didn’t let him derail her, she didn’t let him dominate her. She had a fearlessness that comes from having dealt with so much more crap in her career than any of us can imagine, and the poise that comes from truly trusting herself in that moment. She made us see him as a buffoon. The debate highlighted, finally, how unacceptable our cultural norm is. And Hillary showed us what it looks like when we have the clout, and the moxie, to hold our own.
The women of the Obama administration showed us how to be heard – have each other’s backs, amplify each other’s ideas, keep repeating and giving credit where it’s due until the men finally hear you. And last night, Hillary taught us the secret to dealing with interruptions: just keep talking. Own your right to that microphone, shake it off, and say what you came to say: don’t let anyone derail you when it’s YOUR TIME. Easier said than done – but oh, it can be done.
* I wish I remember who came up with this phrase, in response to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” but I can sadly only say it isn’t mine.