Senator Mitch McConnell’s silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the debate over Senator Jeff Sessions nomination as attorney general had everything to do with gender and nothing to do with impugning a peer. Warren was reading from a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986, in protest of Sessions' candidacy for a federal judgeship (he was not confirmed as a federal judge). Were the letter so inflammatory, Senator Tom Udall would not have subsequently been able to read the letter in its entirety (Robbins 2017).

As I noted in my post on mansplaining, men are more likely to interrupt a speaker than are women, and women are more likely to be interrupted than are men (Anderson and Leaper 1998; Hancock and Rubin 2015). The same male senators who interrupted and silenced Senator Warren granted Senator Udall the respect to read the very same words uninterrupted. This gendered double standard of censorship matters—interruptions are linked to social power (Kollock et al 1985) and thus both reflect and reinforce gender inequality. Fortunately, Senator Warren did not take the rebuke meekly—she promptly read Coretta Scott King’s letter in its entirety in a Facebook Live video.

Opposition to Warren could stem in part from discomfort toward ambitious, confident women. Senator Lindsay Graham stated that silencing Warren was “long overdue” and that “she is clearly running for the nomination in 2020” (Kaczynski 2017). This comment trivializes Warren’s objection to Sessions’ candidacy as a politically-motivated stunt intended to build electoral support, and it also suggests that strong women with leadership aspirations are in particular need of silencing. Even less subtly, Governor Mike Huckabee’s gloating tweet describing Warrens as a “scold” draws on explicitly sexist language—labeling a woman as a “scold” has long been used as a strategy to silence assertive women and trivialize their remarks.  

This animus toward strong, competent woman “intruding” in a male domain is well-documented in sociology. Experimental research indicates that women who succeed in a male gender-typed job are less liked and more personally derogated than equally successful men (Heilman et al 2004). These negative reactions can impact career outcomes, such as performance evaluations and raises (Heilman et al 2004). Penalties for success may be particularly salient for mothers—a role Clinton often referenced in her campaign. Mothers are generally evaluated as less competent and committed employees than non-mothers, but when mothers conclusively demonstrate their competence they are labeled as less warm, less likable, and more interpersonally hostile (Benard and Correll 2010). This phenomenon may explain in part Secretary Clinton’s electoral defeat to now-President Trump—Trump supporters are higher in both overt and unconscious sexism (Bialik 2017). Indeed, much of the popular animus against Clinton may stem from discomfort with women seeking power (Goldberg 2017). In this light, it is not surprising that her competent, poised demeanor is often cited as motivation for dislike or distrust (Goldberg 2017).

Politics remains a strongly-male domain in the US. Women make up 21% of the US Senate and 19% of the House of Representatives and the demographics of state-level elected officials are little better (Eagleton Institute of Politics, 2017). Women who succeed in such a predominately-male setting face both explicit and unconscious sexism, damaging evaluations of their likability. Eliminating this gender bias requires noticing acts of sexism—but overt and subtle—and speaking out against them. Thankfully, Senator Warren did not allow herself to be silenced.

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Anderson and Leaper. 1998. “Meta-Analysis of Gender Effects on Conversational Inturruption: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.” Sex Roles 39(3-4):225-252.

Benard, Stephen, and Shelley J. Correll. 2010. “Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty.” Gender & Society 24(5):616-646.

Bialik, Carl. 2017. “How Unconscious Sexism Could Help Explain Trump’s Win”

Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University. 2017.

Goldberg, Michelle. 2016. “The Hillary Haters.”

Hancock and Rubin. 2015. “Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 34(1):46-64.

Heilman, Madeline E., AS Wallen, D Fuchs, and MM Tamkins. 2004. “Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks.” Journal of Applied Psychology 89(3):416-427.

Kaczynski, Andrew. 2017.

King, Coretta Scott. 1986.

Kollock, Blumstein, and Schwartz. 1985. “Sex and Power in Interaction: Conversational privileges and Duties. American Sociological Review 50(1):34-46.

Robbins, Mel. 2017.

Link to Warren's Facebook Live video:

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