Her words came in response to the rage-filled mutterings Ted Yoho. But it would be a mistake to view what happened as simply the next stage in some typical political squabble or beef. Or, as some have attempted to argue, political opportunism.
The Democratic congresswoman from New York did so much more than deliver the proverbial “clapback.” This wasn’t simply a viral moment. Ocasio-Cortez offered an eloquent and expert dismantling of the playbook that men have used to keep women in their place for centuries.
Her speech was a clear signifier of the rising power of women in politics, which helped hasten her into office in 2018, along with a historic number of other female candidates.
“I think it is the most important feminist speech in a generation,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. She compared it to then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking “women’s rights are human rights” speech before the United Nations in 1995.
Yoho harassed Ocasio-Cortez in the halls of Congress on Monday, calling her “disgusting” because of her (fairly commonplace) views on poverty. Then, he walked away and called her a “fucking bitch” as a reporter from The Hill looked on.
A couple of days later, Yoho made a bad situation worse, delivering a classic nonapology before Congress. The short version: He didn’t do it but if he did, he was sorry if someone was offended and he is the father of daughters.
That probably would have satisfied his colleagues in the days before Me Too, and before women had amassed as much real power in Congress. Steny Hoyer, the second most powerful Democrat in the House, at first said he believed Ocasio-Cortez would “appreciate the apology.”
She did not.
“Rep. Yoho decided to come to the floor of the House of Representatives and make excuses for his behaviour, and that I could not let go,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her speech Thursday. “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.”
The way these situations typically go: Women who are viewed as powerful, and therefore scary, are demonised as “crazy bitches” or some other misogynistic slur. Female politicians of colour, in particular, have been on the receiving end of horrific disrespect, hateful comments and abuse. The men levying the accusations are usually the ones acting with unhinged fury — and their anger is typically viewed as perfectly fine.
Recall Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s wild angry speech before the Senate at his confirmation hearings versus the calm, respectful manner of his accuser Christine Blasey Ford. President Donald Trump has returned to the “crazy bitch” well many times over the years.
In politics, women typically don’t confront the situation head-on. As Lisa Lerer pointed out in The New York Times, Hillary Clinton has been called a “bitch” approximately 100 bajillion times but has never directly addressed it.
Some women take a more sideways approach, reclaiming an insult like “Nevertheless, she persisted” and turning it into something empowering.
Well, Ocasio-Cortez went right for it. On the floor of Congress, she slowly and carefully repeated the words that Yoho muttered to himself: “fucking bitch.” And then she proceeded to tear it all down, shining light on a dehumanising process that has long been in the shadows and mostly accepted as a woman’s burden.
“This is not new, and that is the problem,” she said. “It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
She then listed other politicians who have similarly insulted her, including the president.
“Dehumanising language is not new, and what we are seeing is that incidents like these are happening in a pattern,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is a pattern of an attitude towards women and dehumanization of others.”
It was a perfect balm for our times, exposing a system that for so long was taken for granted, the patriarchal air we breathe. The speech came a few days after a wall of “moms” confronted federal officers in Portland, and it came on the same day that Trump tried to play into the supposed fears of suburban women ― whom he actually tagged with the dated moniker, housewife.
Ocasio-Cortez was also carrying on the work of Me Too and the protests rocking this country to demand humanity for people of colour.
We’ve arrived at a time when calling out men for sexism in politics is finally considered acceptable, Lawless said. “Societal views have changed for the better and, as a result, there is no reason whatsoever to worry that fighting back against harassment could be detrimental to a woman’s electoral viability, approval ratings or political future.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s words made it clear that equality is not simply about electing women.
“It’s about treating women with dignity, respect and civility,” she said.
And, just for good measure, the congresswoman flipped a classic excuse for misogyny on its head: Men in politics have gotten away with their bad behaviour toward women — or their misguided policies — by explaining that they actually know women, personally, and therefore are good guys. “As the father of daughters” is a popular refrain.
“Mr Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters. I am two years younger than Mr Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter, too,” she said. “My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of this House towards me on television, and I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”
Then, just so everyone was clear:
“What I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent,” she said. “Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologise.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misidentified Rep. Ted Yoho as a Democrat. He is a Republican.