Maritza Reyes on Lessons in Public Advocacy and Self-Defense: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Responded to Representative Ted Yoho’s Reported Sexist Epithets

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I urge all of you to watch and listen to what U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in the public record (on July 23, 2020) in the U.S. Congress about reportedly being called a “fucking bitch” and other epithets often hurled at women, including “disgusting,” “crazy,” “out of [her] mind” and “dangerous” by Florida Representative Ted Yoho. Here is a link to an article about what happened, including her remarks. She said that Rep. Yoho “accosted” her and pointed his finger at her as she was entering the Capitol building to do her job. She shared that this is how some men use dehumanizing conduct and language to abuse women. When Rep. Yoho was caught in the act by a reporter, he made a disingenuous apology full of excuses for poor behavior, without directly apologizing to the woman he accosted; he did not even say her name. After she heard him make his self-aggrandizing, disingenuous apology in the House floor, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made her own remarks. She spoke about the evil of silence in the face of such abuse. She spoke about the abuse women face as we engage in our daily activities, including our jobs. She did not accept the non-apology and called it for what it really was– an attempt to cover up for misconduct while adding further insult to the original injury. Here is a link to an article about the “apology.”

Representative Ocasio-Cortez said she spoke “because [every Congresswoman and every woman in this country] have had to deal with this, in some form, some way, some shape, at some point in our lives.” She concluded that Rep. Yoho’s remarks were just “excuses for his behavior” and she “could not allow that to stand.” She did what a professional woman must often do – defend herself and put it on the record. In response to Rep. Yoho’s self-professed decency and references to his wife and daughters, she explained: “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. When a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize, not to save face, not to win a vote. He apologizes genuinely to repair and acknowledge the harm done, so that we can all move on.” A point that rang close to my own experience is when she said, “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.” Her final point was to thank Rep. Yoho for showing the world that you can be a powerful man, with a wife and daughters, and “accost women without remorse” “and with a sense of impunity” and “using this language against all of us.”

I agree that many women have been subjected to similar conduct, including as we do our jobs and participate in professional activities. I am about to publish a law review article titled “Professional Women Subjugated by Name-Calling and Character Attacks” in the Journal of Gender, Race & Justice. In it, I highlight the experiences of First Lady/Senator Hillary Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to illustrate the problem and propose solutions. I also reference President Donald Trump’s 2019 attacks against U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, all of whom are women of color. The publication was delayed due to COVID-19. It will be my second article in my “Professional Women” series. In the first one, “Professional Women Silenced by Men-Made Norms,” published in the Akron Law Review, I analyzed why so many women remain silent when we face abuse, including harassment, at work and advocated for individual actions toward a collective movement against this abuse. That article was published two years before one such movement, the #MeToo Movement, which began with the individual actions of women, made headlines. I am encouraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s individual action and hope that, as with the #MeToo Movement, more women will join in sharing our own stories of workplace abuse.

Most of us do not have the forum that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has in the U.S. Congress, but there are other forums where we are able to speak truth to power, including in this blog, in our academic workplaces, in courtrooms, and in other public and private spaces. We must not remain silent. Even the individual action of calling out the abuse is better than doing nothing. Another action could be to call out the abuser by name, including in a public space as Alexandria did. Perhaps these types of actions would serve as deterrents to future abuse. Finally, it is time for people to stop telling women facing similar situations to “let it go,” “don’t say anything,” “accept his non-apology,” and “be the better person.” I invite you to listen to the voices of other Representatives who joined with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. They were Pramila Jayapal, Nydia Velázquez, Brenda Lawrence, Al Green, Jackie Speier, Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley, Judy Chu, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lori Trahan, Steny Hoyer, Mikie Sherrill, Barbara Lee, Ilhan Omar, Katherine Clark, and Rashida Tlaib. The link is here.

(Posted by Christine Corcos for Professor Reyes)

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