Some Advice for Bernie on Speaking at the Women’s Convention


Bernie Sanders Women's Convention

GettyBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI + AFP

The Women’s Convention, a movement-building event scheduled for the end of this month, just announced their headlining speaker and it’s not who you think. Okay, it is who you think if you read the headline or looked at the photo above. It’s Bernie Sanders, who, it so happens, identifies as a cisgender man.

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Organizers of the Convention made the choice to center Sanders, according to Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory, because “right now, no one can deny that Bernie Sanders is probably one of the most powerful U.S. senators.” Quoted in USA Today, Mallory continued, “We believe as women… that we ought to have more than just women at the Women’s Convention. People want to hear from the leadership from within our government who can give us some insight about what’s happening.”

Okay. Sure. I can see it. (not that anyone asked me). Allyship is important to every movement. When asked, we have to show up. But if I may: a word of advice for the senator himself.

Bernie, bro. Props on the speaking gig. I have to admit, my immediate response was snark. “Everyone’s favorite way to learn about the future of women’s issues is from a dude,” I thought. You do you, my friend, but when you think about people with government bona fides and zeitgeist-y draw you’re not the only person who comes to mind. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris? All amazing.

After response on social media, Mallory took to Twitter to note that Rep. Maxine Waters is actually the headliner, despite the USA Today report.

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Far be it from me to question the decision itself. (The irony of I, another cisgender man, telling the Women’s Convention how they’re doing feminism wrong would be too much, even for 2017. It’s not yet bad take o’clock.)

But what I can do, Bernie, is remind you of something you probably already know but could stand to hear again (because we call could): Being an ally is as much about listening as it is about speaking, probably more so. Men are always encouraged to speak up (when the subject is their opinion; less so—as we’ve seen recently and systemically—when the subject is holding other men accountable.) We rarely ask if we really ought to take up space.

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Part of the work of being an ally is centering an experience outside of one’s own. That centering often means moving oneself out of the way and identifying ways that one is or has been complicit in the oppression of the group that one is trying to be in allyship with. More simply put, it’s this move recently demonstrated by Aziz:

The “I support you and I’ll follow your lead.”

It goes great with this one:

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The “Take the mic! I’m listening!”

Sometimes it is necessary to raise your voice for those who cannot. Sometimes it’s important to be quiet and listen.

Men—you, Bernie, me, all men—would benefit from spending more time stepping back, even if we had previously been sure that the situation at hand called for our voice.

So, Bernie, bro, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t speak at the Women’s Convention. But before you do, and as you do, and after you do, investigate your place in that space. Confidence is comfortable but it’s rarely as constructive as doubt.

Rebecca Solnit, in her essay Men Explain Things to Me, puts it better:

“I’ve learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing—though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots, like the ones who have governed us since 2001. There’s a happy medium between these poles to which the genders have been pushed, a warm equatorial belt of give and take where we should all meet.”

An earlier version of this opinion piece misstated the role Rep. Maxine Waters will play in the Women’s Convention. The content has been updated to reflect correct information.



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