Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, went viral on Wednesday for embarrassing himself during a Tuesday hearing with Stacey Abrams about Georgia’s new voter suppression law. What the senator had hoped would be a triumphant “gotcha” grilling backfired in large part because she had come prepared — and he clearly had not.
What the senator had hoped would be a triumphant “gotcha” grilling backfired in large part because she had come prepared — and he clearly had not.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights, Kennedy attempted to stump Abrams by asking her to list the specific provisions of the bill she finds racist and objectionable. Abrams, a Yale-educated attorney and one of the nation’s foremost voting rights experts, proceeded to list from memory and in detail the many, many provisions that are designed to make it harder for Black people to vote. She didn’t once glance down at any notes.
As Abrams dropped an impressive amount of knowledge, Kennedy appeared to be slowly realizing his mistake. He tried interrupting her a few times to derail her train of thought, but that didn’t work. After about two minutes, he finally threw in the towel and stopped her from listing more provisions. “I get the idea,” he said. One video of the exchange has already been viewed close to 3 million times on Twitter.
The remarkable confrontation did more than showcase Abrams’ considerable expertise, however; it epitomized a dynamic all too familiar for women and especially women of color. Kennedy didn’t anticipate that Abrams, the Black woman who founded a voting rights advocacy group after losing the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018, would show up to a Senate hearing on the issue overprepared, quite possibly because that level of preparation has never been required of him.
In fact, Kennedy has been known to downplay his background as an Oxford-educated lawyer. His Southern drawl seems designed to help him appear more folksy and relatable to his constituents. A former classmate of his from New Orleans described Kennedy’s "Southern-cornpone accent" and country-bumpkin persona as an "affectation," pure "political theater" and "about as authentic as a cow in a camel costume." Kennedy believes, not without reason, that he can just roll into a Judiciary Committee hearing without doing his homework, completely wing it with simple, uninformed questions and still look good to voters.
Abrams grew up in what she calls a “working poor” family in Mississippi, the state right next to Kennedy’s, and went on to acquire an Ivy League law degree that’s just as impressive as his J.D. But if she were ever to behave like Kennedy — performing folksy ignorance and a slow Southern drawl, ad libbing during official government business, asking questions on camera to which she doesn’t know the answer — she would be laughed out of the room. No one would take her seriously.
Data backs up this dynamic: Women are more likely than men to prepare and less likely to improvise, according to 2016 YouGov data. In a 2019 study led by U.K. psychologists, male managers were more likely to be judged and promoted based on their potential, whereas women were more likely to be judged on their established records and accomplishments.
Women, in general, have learned that we have to do the work to get anywhere in life. And despite that, Black and Hispanic women are still paid the least, by far, of any other demographic in the country, and women of color are badly underrepresented in government. The playing field is still wildly uneven, and Abrams knows that perhaps better than anyone, having run in a (formerly) red state to be the first Black female governor in the country.
So, yes, it was very satisfying to watch Kennedy underestimate Abrams and then see her intellectually stomp him in front of his colleagues and the world. His condescending attitude juxtaposed with her quiet confidence made the moment even sweeter. Perhaps next time he will do his homework.