Closing The Gap

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's response to Rep. Ted Yoho hits home for many other women in politics and business

MANDEL NGAN | AFP | Getty Images

On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took to the House floor to deliver a powerful response to Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla) after he aggressively confronted her outside the Capitol, then delivered a non-apology defending his own behavior. She called out the ongoing acceptance of "violence and violent language against women" inside and outside of politics.

The 30-year-old congresswoman detailed how earlier in the week, while walking up the steps of the Capitol, Yoho called her "disgusting," "crazy," "out of [her] mind" and "dangerous" for suggesting that poverty and unemployment numbers are causing an increase in crime in New York City during the pandemic. When Ocasio-Cortez told the congressman he was being rude, he walked away, calling her a "a f---ing b----," which was overheard by nearby reporters outside the Capitol. 

Admitting that she was not "hurt or deeply offended" by Yoho's comments because she's "encountered this type of harassment" before, Ocasio-Cortez said she wanted to address Yoho's Wednesday apology where he said that "Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I'm very cognizant of my language" and that he apologized if his words were misunderstood.

"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," Ocasio-Cortez said, while adding that having a daughter or a wife does not make a man "decent."


Ocasio-Cortez's speech has since inspired other women in politics to come forward in her defense and to share their own experiences of dealing with sexism and violent remarks. 

"Violence against women in politics specifically is a global problem," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said on the House floor following Ocasio-Cortez's speech. "I know. I would invite any of my colleagues across the aisle to answer the calls into my office for just one day to hear the vile sexist remarks made about me and other women serving in this chamber."

Rep. Ilhan Omar also chimed in and came to Ocasio-Cortez's defense, while explaining that like many other women, she too has experienced ongoing acts of sexism and violent remarks made towards her.

"In this body, we have seen men who are afraid of Muslim women like me and Rashida Tlaib because we say proudly that you cannot ban us from this country because we pray differently than you," she said.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts a news conference to call for the extension of the federal unemployment insurance in the Capitol Visitor Center to on Friday, July 24, 2020. Reps. Richard Neal, D-Mass., left, and Dan Kildee, D-Mich., also appear.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

In a separate news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in on her experiences with sexism in politics saying, "It's a manifestation of attitude in our society really. I can tell you that firsthand, they've called me names for at least...18 years of leadership." 

Pelosi, who is a mother of five, went on to recall the time when Congress was debating about reproductive rights years ago and a GOP lawmaker said on the House floor, "Nancy Pelosi thinks she knows more about having babies than the Pope."

"There's no limit to the disrespect or the lack of acknowledgement of the strength of women," she said, while adding that nothing will be more "wholesome for our government" than the increased participation of women in politics.

Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director of workplace safety and equity for anti-violence organization Futures Without Violence, tells CNBC Make It that the sexism women experience in politics is no different than the sexism women experience in many other workplaces, especially those that are dominated by men. Right now, women make up 23.7% of the 535 members in the United States Congress. 

"Sexual harassment, more than anything, is about power," she says. "It's not really all that much about sex. It's a way for men to kind of check women and say, 'Know your place. You're in our space, we have the power and I'm going to use what I have as a man to take you down a peg.'"

To stop sexual harassment from taking place, whether it comes in the form of inappropriate remarks or acts of assault, Seabrook says a culture shift has to happen where both men and women call out this behavior. 

"We have to change the fact that Rep. Yoho saying [those remarks] was treated as OK because his colleagues didn't call him out," she says. "That's the norm that has to be changed. And, I think that's changed through greater accountability. We need good men to stand up and say, 'That's wrong' and hold other men accountable for that type of language and behavior."

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