‘We can all relate to this.’ Why AOC’s speech on sexism struck a chord beyond Washington

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‘We can all relate to this.’ Why AOC’s speech on sexism struck a chord beyond Washington

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) says Rep. Ted Yoho (R) calling her a “f***ing b**ch” is not “about one incident. It is cultural.”

USA TODAY

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s objections to a Republican lawmaker’s verbal assault on her expanded Thursday as she and other Democrats have taken to the House floor. (July 23)

AP Domestic

Nancy Pelosi, the only woman ever to serve as House speaker, called it a “new dawn” when she took the gavel in 2019 to lead a Congress that included a record-breaking number of women lawmakers.

To mark the occasion, many female lawmakers, including the speaker, wore shades of red and brought daughters and granddaughters to the House chamber.

One of the women sworn in that day, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had an iconic moment of her own Thursday, when she rose to the podium in the House to rebuke a fellow lawmaker, Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who accosted her Monday on the Capitol steps and, as they parted ways, called her a “f—— b—-,” according to a reporter who overheard the comment.

As she spoke about the confrontation Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez said she had been on the receiving end of disrespectful comments from men before, during her tenure in Congress and in past jobs as a waitress and a bartender. But she said she decided to speak out, not because of the one incident involving Yoho, but because of sexist comments directed at women every day.

“It is cultural,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.”

Read AOC’s speech: ‘I am someone’s daughter too.’

The speech resonated well beyond the Capitol, becoming a viral sensation on social media and sparking a conversation about the role language plays in reinforcing power imbalances between men and women.

Female lawmakers and experts who have studied the rise of women in Congress said that even after the #MeToo movement put a spotlight on sexual harassment of women in media, government and Hollywood, many women are reluctant to speak out about sexist comments and behavior.

“What Alexandria did was very powerful,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said in an interview Friday. “She could have ignored it.”

“I think that we can all relate to what she experienced, whether it’s in the disparaging remarks people make, that men have made, or the kinds of looks of denigration,” said Chu, who was one of several women who stood up on the House floor Thursday to echo Ocasio-Cortez’s rebuke of sexism.

“We can all relate to this,” Chu told USA TODAY.

Do men ‘simply resent’ women leaders?

Anne Kaiser, a Maryland state legislator who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House of Delegates, praised Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks and told USA TODAY that Yoho’s behavior is emblematic of “systemic sexism that still is a part of our society.”

“Ask any woman leader out there: The fact is that some men simply resent women leaders and, truthfully, so do some women,” said Kaiser, who also is a professor of Women in Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A record 131 women serve in the current U.S. Congress, with 105 in the House when nonvoting members representing territories and the District of Columbia are included, according to the Congressional Research Service. Twenty-six members of the Senate are women.

Karen O’Connor, a professor of political science at American University and founder of the university’s Women and Politics Institute, said there have been clear signs of progress for women, including Pelosi’s speakership and the fact that women in the House hold a record number of committee chairs.

O’Connor said Yoho’s conduct toward Ocasio-Cortez mirrored behavior by other men in power, including President Donald Trump.

“But – and it is a big but – privileged white men, who control the Republican parties in each House, are largely older and believe women such as AOC threaten their power so they continually seek to minimize women, as does the president, who routinely tries to diminish women world leaders, governors and mayors,” O’Connor said.

“Women of color just get a double whammy. When the president insults and belittles women, he gives other white men tacit approval to do so,” O’Connor added. 

Trump has derided female world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former British Prime Minister Theresa May. He has ridiculed women such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich. The president has called Ocasio-Cortez a “whack job” and often refers to Pelosi as “Crazy Nancy.”

Trump also lashes out at plenty of male politicians, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y.

An ‘abrupt manner’

The Hill newspaper, which was the first to report the confrontation between Ocasio-Cortez and Yoho, said the Florida lawmaker approached Ocasio-Cortez as she was walking up the steps of the Capitol and told her she was “disgusting” for saying poverty was the driving force behind a rise in crime in New York City.

“You are out of your freaking mind,” Yoho told the congresswoman, according to Hill reporter Mike Lillis. Lillis said Ocasio-Cortez told Yoho he was being “rude” and said he overheard the congressman say “f—— b—-” as he walked away.

Yoho denied that his use of profanity had been directed at Ocasio-Cortez but acknowledged an “abrupt manner” in his conversation with her.

“Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” he said on the House floor Wednesday. “The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues, and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.” 

Ocasio-Cortez said Yoho’s decision to invoke his wife and daughters was what prompted her to speak up.

“I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and, worse, to see that — to see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology and to accept silence as a form of acceptance,”http://www.usatoday.com/” she said. “I could not allow that to stand.”

O’Connor noted that in the same week that Ocasio-Cortez pushed back on Yoho’s comments, Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference and the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, faced attacks from some GOP lawmakers and Trump himself after she questioned his reluctance to wear a mask and some of his foreign policy positions.

Trump retweeted a post that called on Cheney, R-Wyo., to step down from her leadership post in the House “or be removed.”

While there is little indication that the backlash against Cheney is significant enough to put her leadership role at risk, O’Connor said the attacks on her by Trump and some of his allies in Congress show a belief that “she needs to be punished and publicly embarrassed” for stepping out of line.

Kelly Dittmar, co-author of a “A Seat at the Table,” a book based on interviews with dozens of female members of Congress who served between 2015 and 2017, said the woman she spoke with described unique challenges they faced in an institution long dominated by men.

“Many of them said, ‘Look, it was harder to get here than it is harder to be here as it pertains to sexism,’” Dittmar said.

But Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Ocasio-Cortez’s role as a congresswoman gave her a platform to speak out that many women lack. She said the election of more women to Congress is giving them a chance to “confront norms and dynamics that have long advantaged men.”

“In Congress, they do potentially have an avenue for some accountability, Dittmar said, and Ocasio-Cortez “in the most overt way that we’ve seen a woman do, really leveraged that power by going on the House floor and calling out Rep. Yoho. That’s kind of an interesting and important dynamic in how we see institutions change.”

Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, Nicholas Wu, John Fritze, Maureen Groppe and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY

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