Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Monday, Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida confronted Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on the steps of the Capitol with an aggressive and brazenly misogynistic personal attack. Yoho approached Ocasio-Cortez about her position – that poverty and unemployment contributed to an increase in crime in New York – and during a brief discussion said she was “disgusting,” according to a reporter from The Hill who overheard the exchange. Ocasio-Cortez responded that he was being rude, and Yoho walked away, saying “f**king bitch” as he descended the steps, according to the Hill reporter, Mike Lillis.
Two days later, Yoho stood on the House floor and apologized for the “abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York.” He denied using the expletives. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. 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,” Yoho said. Bob Cusack, editor in chief of the Hill, stood by the reporting, and said, “Our story was and remains 100 percent accurate.”
While Yoho said he was “passionate about those affected by poverty,” many women – and quite a few men – know this confrontation wasn’t really about a policy difference at all. First, it’s important to note that Ocasio-Cortez is right: the link between crime and poverty has been well-documented. (Ocasio-Cortez has said she was clear in the virtual town hall earlier this month in which she originally drew the connection that she was referring to petty – not violent – crimes.)
Second, our political system was designed specifically to foster representation of different political views in Congress, which is why it remains unusual to see a member of Congress denigrate himself and the institution by verbally attacking another member in this way. Ocasio-Cortez said it had never happened to her before and tweeted, “Believe it or not, I usually get along fine w/ my GOP colleagues. We know how to check our legislative sparring at the committee door.”
Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Dean Phillips of Minnesota highlighted the sexism at play here, tweeting that they had previously expressed the same views on poverty and crime without being accosted in the way Ocasio-Cortez was. By allegedly using the word “bitch” in his stunning breach of decorum, Yoho suggested that what he was really complaining about was that a woman was daring to wield political power at all.
We know this because of his very choice of that word (allegedly) is often used to denigrate women for being (in the eyes of the person wielding the term) malicious, unpleasant or selfish. These also happen to be the characteristics used to describe women who dare seek power, as Kate Manne writes in “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” Manne says that when women compete for positions typically held by men, they tend to be portrayed as “morally suspect.” That’s why, according to Manne, “dislike and hostility are relatively predictable reactions to female politicians aspiring to highest office.”
On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez responded to the confrontation by tweeting, “Hey, ‘b*tches’ get stuff done.” By reclaiming the word and using it to refer to powerful women in a nod to a famous Tina Fey sketch on Saturday Night Live, Ocasio-Cortez played with Yoho’s attempt to use the term to punish her for wielding political power as a woman – and, brilliantly, refused to let him do it.
On Thursday, a day after Yoho’s cowardly non-apology, Ocasio-Cortez took to the House floor herself to address her fellow Congresswomen and Congressmen and cannily shifted the conversation away from the personal attack and onto the wider culture of misogyny that women in this country face. She responded to Yoho while calling out everyone from President Donald Trump to men on the subway for upholding a culture of “impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
She also broke down Yoho’s protestations that he is a family man with a wife and two daughters by turning that well-worn defense on its head. “I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter.”
She went on to say, “When you do that to any woman, what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters. In using that language, in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable.”
Here’s something else Americans shouldn’t accept: pretending this didn’t happen. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) was walking with Yoho during the entire exchange recounted by Lillis. When asked about it, however, Williams claimed he was distracted. “I was actually thinking, as I was walking down the stairs, I was thinking about some issues I’ve got in my district that need to get done. I don’t know what their topic was,” he said. A man who doesn’t notice a woman being publicly and personally attacked while simply trying to do her job when it happens right in front of his eyes cannot be trusted to look out for the interests of women in general — and therefore has no place holding public office.
Coincidentally, amidst a pandemic, presidential election and looming economic crisis, Fox News host Tucker Carlson decided it was a good use of his airtime this week to report on false allegations that Al Jazeera reporter Kimberly Halkett called White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany a “lying bitch” when she actually said, “Okay, you don’t want to engage” – a comment supported by both audio recording as well as the White House official transcript.
It’s interesting that this baseless rumor spread by Twitter users was picked up by Carlson, who was willing to call out the purported use of a derogatory phrase against a woman — when it was a woman on the right. Carlson, let’s not forget, has called women “extremely primitive,” and branded a number of female celebrities, at various times “white whores,” “c***y,” ugly and pigs. (Carlson refused to apologize for his remarks when they resurfaced last year and simply shrugged off the controversy by calling his own comments “naughty.”)
In attacking Ocasio-Cortez, Yoho didn’t have facts on his side. He didn’t wield policy arguments or studies. Rather, he lobbed personal insults at her in a manner both unusual for and unbecoming of a member of Congress. His reported use of the word “bitch” can only be described, as Yoho might put it, as disgusting. But by refusing to accept either the insult and Yoho’s half-hearted apology, Ocasio-Cortez issued a badly-needed defense not just of herself, but of all women who seek power.