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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful speech against misogyny in Congress was long overdue

She responded to sexist insults made by Rep. Ted Yoho this week and called out a broader culture of sexism in Congress.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks at a press conference at Corona Plaza in Queens, New York, on April 14, 2020.
Scott Heins/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In a powerful floor speech condemning Rep. Ted Yoho’s misogynistic statements earlier this week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decimated a common trope that men have used time and again to defend themselves from allegations of sexism: the “father of daughters” excuse.

During a policy disagreement at the US Capitol on Tuesday, Yoho called the Congress member “crazy,” “disgusting,” and “out of [her] freaking mind.” After she left, he reportedly said she was a “fucking bitch,” according to The Hill’s Mike Lillis.

In remarks on Wednesday, Yoho glossed over most of this without taking accountability for his words. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” Yoho said. “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, however, called his deflection out for what it was: the latest example of men engaging in a culture of abuse toward women while using the women in their lives to avoid scrutiny for their actions.

“I will not stay up late at night waiting for an apology from a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women,” she said in a floor speech on Thursday. “But what I do have issue with is using women — wives and daughters — as shields and excuses for poor behavior.”

Her speech, which emphasized that the problem is much bigger than Yoho, was long overdue.

“Mr. Yoho was not alone. He was walking shoulder to shoulder with Representative Roger Williams,” she said. “And that’s when we start to see that this issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. 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.”

You can watch the entirety of her remarks below:

The inequities Ocasio-Cortez called out are ones that have been a problem for some time: In her speech, she decried misogyny in Congress, dismissed the excuses that have been made for men’s behavior, and questioned the example that Yoho and others were setting for other men.

When someone leverages the “father of daughters” trope as a shield from accountability, for example, they hurt the very people they claim to respect and value, Ocasio-Cortez argued. In fact, they admit via their own actions that it’s acceptable to act in this way toward all women.

“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,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Now, what I am here to say is that this harm that Mr. Yoho levied, tried to levy against me, was not just an incident directed at me, but when you do that to any woman, what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters.”

For too long, men have used this “father of daughters” cop-out as a seemingly valid response while failing to address the specific harms caused by their actions.

Ocasio-Cortez’s speech has sparked a broader conversation about misogyny

Ocasio-Cortez’s speech on Thursday was about more than just the incident with Yoho.

While that exchange was the inciting factor, it ultimately sparked a broader conversation about sexism in Congress, an institution still overwhelmingly dominated by men. Presently, just 24 percent of the House members are women while the other three-quarters are men.

During her floor speech, Ocasio-Cortez was joined by more than 10 men and women who took turns excoriating Yoho’s remarks and an institution that has long advanced and tolerated such misogyny.

“I want to be clear that this violent language is about power,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who referenced a time she was criticized by a Republican lawmaker as a “young lady [who] didn’t know a damn thing about what [she] was talking about.”

“These are the things that happen to us all the time,” Jayapal said.

Others who spoke included Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Jackie Speier, Ilhan Omar, Al Green, and Steny Hoyer, all of whom you can watch in the clip below:

Further highlighting the prevalence of sexism, a New York Times report about Ocasio-Cortez’s speech has since been criticized for its framing of Ocasio-Cortez’s actions. The piece, which back-handedly praised her skill at “using her detractors to amplify her own political brand,” drew pushback for deeming her speech — and not Yoho’s comments — as the “disruptive” event.

“[Women voicing] fury at systemic degradation is read as opportunistic. Whereas men’s abusive behavior [is] rarely understood as fundamental to how they attained & maintain THEIR power. But it is!” tweeted New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister.

Ultimately, Ocasio-Cortez’s speech and the comments by her colleagues highlighted how entrenched misogyny continues to be on Capitol Hill and beyond, as well as the dedicated focus that more and more lawmakers have to combating it.

In Congress, a growing number of women lawmakers has led to more open confrontations about sexism in recent years, discussions that are poised to continue. “Nothing is more wholesome for our government, for our politics, for our country, than the increased participation of women,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a press conference on Friday.

“We are not going away,” emphasized Jayapal.

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