'Nevertheless, She Persisted' and the Age of the Weaponized Meme

Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren in the Senate chamber. That only made her voice louder.

Andrew Harnik / AP

There are many ways that American culture tells women to be quiet—many ways they are reminded that they would really be so much more pleasing if they would just smile a little more, or talk a little less, or work a little harder to be pliant and agreeable. Women are, in general, extremely attuned to these messages; we have, after all, heard them all our lives.

And so: When presiding Senate chair Steve Daines, of Montana, interrupted his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, as she was reading the words of Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor on Tuesday evening—and, then, when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell intervened to prevent her from finishing the speech—many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt that silencing, viscerally. And when McConnell, later, remarked of Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt it again. Because, regardless of their politics or place, those women have heard the same thing, or a version of it, many times before.

All of that helps to explain why, today, “Silencing Liz Warren” and #LetLizSpeak are currently trending on social media platforms—and why, along with them, “She Persisted” has become a meme that is already “an instant classic.” It also helps to explain why you can now buy a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirt, or hoodie, or smartphone case, or mug, each item featuring McConnell’s full explanation—warned, explanation, persisted—scrawled, in dainty cursive, on its surface. As the feminist writer Rebecca Traister noted of the majority leader’s words: “‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is likely showing up on a lot of protest signs this weekend.” And it’s likely to keep showing up—a testament to another thing American culture has told its women: that “silence” doesn’t have to equal silence.

It started like this: On Tuesday evening, during a late-night Senate session debating President Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to become attorney general, Warren used her time at the podium to read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had written about Sessions in 1986. King, a civil rights leader in her own right, was opposing Sessions’s potential (and, later, realized) elevation from U.S. attorney to federal judge. Warren began reading the words King had written (to then-Senator Strom Thurmond): “It has been a long uphill struggle to keep alive the vital legislation that protects the most fundamental right to vote. A person who has exhibited so much hostility to the enforcement of those laws”—

At this point, Daines, the senator presiding over the session, interrupted Warren, citing Senate Rule XIX and its stipulation that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” The matter was put to a vote; it went down party lines; Warren was not permitted to continue. After this, McConnell was asked to explain himself and his party’s silencing of his Senate colleague.

And then: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And with it, as the Chicago Tribune put it: “Mitch McConnell, bless his heart, has coined a new feminist rally cry.” Indeed: On the internet, “Nevertheless, she persisted” was applied to images not just of Warren and King, but also of Harriet Tubman, and Malala Yousafzai, and Beyoncé, and Emmeline Pankhurst, and Gabby Giffords, and Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and Princess Leia. It accompanied tags that celebrated #TheResistance.

The meme is, as of Wednesday morning, still going strong. It hit a nerve—the same nerve, roughly, that had been hit by “binders full of women” and “such a nasty woman” before it.

But it hit something else, too: all the notes that allow shared words to swell into shared emotion. You couldn’t have designed better fodder for a meme had you tried. “Nevertheless, she persisted” has, on the one hand, the impish irony of a powerful person’s words being used against him. It has, on the other, words that are elegant in their brevity, making them especially fit for tweets and slogans and mugs. And it has, too, words that are particularly poetic, rendered in near-iambic pentameter, with the key verb of their accusation—“persisted”—neatly rhyming with that other key verb: “resisted.” The whole thing was, for Warren, a perfect storm. It was, for McConnell, a decidedly imperfect one.

But it was also a small object lesson in the way of the politics of the current moment—which, yes, play out within sessions and Sessions, but which also play out on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. Here was politics as a series of messy, behind-the-scenes negotiations among the powerful colliding, once again, with politics as theater. The dustup between Warren and McConnell may have been, at its core, about the interpretation of Senate rules; for the public, though—or, at any rate, for the people who took to the internet to express their solidarity with Warren and her fellow “silenced women”—it was a matter, more simply, of emotion. It was that most classic of things: a woman (sharing the words, no less, of another woman) told by a man to shut up. The context—the details of Rule XIX, the fact that Sessions will almost surely be confirmed by a GOP-led Senate, the fact that (male) senator Jeff Merkley would later finish reading King’s letter, unimpeded—fell away. The memes won the day.

And not just on social media. “SENATE GOP SILENCES WARREN IN SESSIONS DEBATE,” a CNN chyron read on Wednesday morning. “Republicans silence Elizabeth Warren during Senate debate,” a Guardian headline announced. NPR invited its audience to “Read Coretta Scott King’s Letter That Got Sen. Elizabeth Warren Silenced.” This was one more unsurprising element of “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum pointed out on Tuesday, citing the work of the Yale history professor Joanne Freeman, it was, in the United States’s antebellum years, typical for violence—duels, even—to attend almost every session of Congress. The telegraph, and its attendant ability to send information to far-flung places, almost instantly, changed that. As Freeman noted,

With the slavery crisis in Congress raging full force, antislavery advocates appealed to a watchful and far more immediate national audience in the hope of furthering their cause and mobilizing people to take action. And they didn’t only denounce slavery. They also protested that they were being silenced, unable to freely and openly debate slavery on the House floor. For Northern onlookers who weren’t compelled by the fight against slavery, a threat to their fundamental constitutional rights had real power.

Twitter is similar. Facebook is similar. With them—through them—the point of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” becomes not the Senate debate about Sessions itself, but the silencing of Elizabeth Warren within that debate. Warren, for her violation of Rule XIX, is now forbidden from participating in the floor debate over Sessions’s nomination. That, of course, hardly matters. Instead, the senator has taken to CNN and MSNBC to share her indignation about her silencing. She took to Facebook Live to read the letter that she was prevented from reading in full on the Senate floor; the video she and her staff created of the reading currently has more than 7 million views. As the “silenced” but not at all silenced Senator Warren put it in one of her CNN interviews, a note of triumph in her voice: “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”