When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to the House floor last Thursday to address the widespread sexism at work in the halls of Congress and deeply embedded in American culture and society, she had to suspect her remarks would garner some media attention.
After all, Republican Representative Ted Yoho, while walking with fellow Representative Roger Williams on Capitol steps, had not only called her “disgusting” for voicing views that crime was linked to poverty, but followed up this insult by calling her a “fucking bitch”—right there on the Capitol steps in front of reporters.
Shocking, right? Explosive, wouldn’t you say? This is a news story right up there with Donald Trump talking about grabbing women’s genitalia.
Well, for Ocasio-Cortez, this behavior wasn’t really the story, and while this encounter with Yoho and his sexist display have received a mountain of media coverage, it is worth listening closely to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks to capture their full intelligence and beauty as well as their perhaps not-so-obvious insights about sexism and broader discrimination and dehumanization in U.S. society and culture.
Getting caught up in the provocative expletive of the “F-B” words, or even focusing on Yoho’s individual behavior, is exactly what Ocasio-Cortez warns against; and her speech on the House floor was precisely an attempt to direct the narrative away from that narrow focus that misses the point in order to present a more powerful and productive analysis of the thoroughgoing nature of sexism in our culture which dehumanizes women routinely and is generally found acceptable and not remarked upon at all.
Already the spin is on to muddle the issues Ocasio-Cortez raised in her speech by making it about Yoho’s behavior and his supposed apology.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, was quick to cast the drama in terms of Yoho’s apology and the refusal of Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats to accept it, complaining:
“I watched that Congressman Yoho went to the floor and apologized not once but twice to the congresswoman from New York. I watched the majority leader of the House accept his apology.”
“In America, I know people make mistakes, we’re a forgiving nation. I also think when someone apologizes they should be forgiven — I don’t understand that we’re going to take another hour on the floor to debate whether the apology was good enough or not.”
McCarthy wanted to sweep sexism itself under the proverbial rug by making it about Yoho’s apology, or non-apology, and about his individual indiscretion.
How often do we see this? A politician makes a racist or sexist remark, or engages in some behavior such as wearing black face, and then apologizes for a momentary “indiscretion,” “unfortunate word choice,” or “poor attempt at humor,” and so forth, claiming they do not reflect his true character, feelings, or beliefs, and we move on, evading the larger social issues altogether.
Ocasio-Cortez had none of it. She was clear this was not personal.:
And I want to be clear that Representative Yoho’s comments were not deeply hurtful or piercing to me. Because I have worked a working-class job. I have waited tables in restaurants. I have ridden the subway. I have walked the streets in New York City. And this kind of language is not new. I have encountered words uttered by Mr. Yoho and men uttering the same words as Mr. Yoho while I was being harassed in restaurants. I have tossed men out of bars that have used language like Mr. Yoho’s, and I have encountered this type of harassment riding the subway in New York City. This is not new. And that is the problem.
In fact, she was not even going to respond to Yoho’s verbal assault on the Capitol steps, made in the presence of Roger Williams, explaining, “So, while I was not deeply hurt or offended by little comments that are made, when I was reflecting on this, I honestly thought I was going to pack it up and go home. It’s just another day, right?”
It was Yoho’s taking to the floor and making excuses for his behavior, explaining it away as simply a reflection of how “passionate” he is about the issues, turning his sexism into a virtue. And, here’s the kicker which really seemed to spark Ocasio-Cortez’s address, he basically claimed he could not really be sexist because he is married to a woman and has two daughters.
Some of my best and most intimate friends are women.
One wonders how patriarchy, or male dominance, could ever be a major structural force in organizing our society and allocating political and economic power. Is it true that gazillions of men have committed domestic abuse or intimate partner violence against the women they are supposedly closest to in their lives? Is it true that men married to women and fathers of daughters have participated in denying women the right to vote, to go to school, to participate in professions, to earn equal wages, to control the reproductive processes of their bodies?
How can this be true when clearly some of men’s best friends have been women?
Ocasio-Cortez had none of it, emphasizing, “And so, what I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man.”
She clarified that “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.”
She referenced how Trump had told her to “go home” and how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis referred to her as a “whatever that it is.”
Her goal was to highlight the processes of dehumanization that enable violence against women, people of color, and working-class people—that make other lives not matter, or matter less, as she explained her experiences in working-class jobs and as a woman of color.
She said she was motivated to speak to honor the way her parents had raised her to stand up to this kind of sexism and dehumanization.
And here is the crux. For Ocasio-Cortez this incident must push us all to address the larger processes of socialization and enculturation, the larger structural forces of sexism and dehumanization destroying lives and undermining humanity.
An apology, no matter how strong won’t do that. It’s not about forgiving sexism, it’s about owning and addressing it.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.