We’re going to talk about some things that are pretty personal this week. And you’re going to hear the kind of language you don’t normally hear on this podcast. But that’s not because I’m trying to change the tone – it’s because it’s the kind of language women hear every day, for the most mundane reasons. Abuse against women is so normal, so par for the course, that many people just consider it “every day” kind of stuff.
When Donald Trump got caught on the Access Hollywood “hot mic” tape it should have been the end of his political campaign, but for many women what they heard was simply echoes of the way their husbands and sons talk when they are at home – it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. Abuse is just what they live with. So these women didn’t see it as disqualifying behavior from Trump – they figured it was just normal guy stuff.
That is an incredibly powerful and depressing state of affairs.
A presidential candidate admitted to sexual assault in the most vulgar terms and for many women this just seemed like any other day – so why should this change their opinion on the candidate?
Women live in abusive, violent worlds. Every woman you know has some story about being called some vulgar name, being hassled by a man in public, being verbally, if not physically abused for simply taking up space and trying to live her life, let alone assert herself, or having to apologize for having the audacity to say “no” to a man or have a different opinion.
We complain about “mansplaining” and “manspreading” and all manner of annoyances, but the real truth is that these annoyances are what happens on a good day – when things aren’t going well we are afraid of that guy who verbally berates us on the street or follows us around at work. Our anxiety is heightened by the stranger who feels compelled to tell us how we should look, as if he should be in control of our bodies, or the teenager who crowds us in public places, purposefully edging into our space and standing or sitting as close as possible.
And we’ve become so accustomed to this kind of abuse that for many women it doesn’t even register as problematic anymore. It’s just the world in which we love. We’re GOING to be verbally abused and we’re GOING to be touched by strangers and we’re GOING to be pushed out of the way physically and intellectually and being a strong woman just means learning to deal with that – which in this world means taking that treatment.
So this week, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood on the Congress floor and called out not just a powerful man who had used abusive language against her, but impugned the system which enabled that kind of abuse, it was at once long-overdue and exciting, but at the same time a drop in a very big bucket for American women.
Ocasio-Cortez had been trying to make a larger point about the connections between poverty and crime. Rep. Ted Yoho called her “crazy,” “disgusting,” and “out of [her] freaking mind.” After she had left he reportedly called her a “fucking bitch.” Yoho took to the floor to apologize for his words on Wednesday morning. But as apologies go, it was about as unimpressive as possible. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” he 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.”
Yoho went with the classic sexist’s gambit – I have a wife/daughter/sister: I can’t be terrible! And he didn’t apologize for what he said. He didn’t take responsibility for his abuse. He placed the blame on other people for misunderstanding him. It was a classic non-apology.
It was this non-apology that inspired AOC to take the floor. She called out Yoho using his exact language, which was blunt and powerful. She made it clear what he had said. This is harsh on the ear because we have gendered expectations of language.
When a man uses vulgar language like that it is powerful – crude, but powerful. He is assertive. We see examples of this in countless movies where powerful business men use terrible language to berate the people around them in order to exert their dominance. We may remember the abusive character Alec Baldwin played in Glengarry Glen Ross to great acclaim. His whole character was one long stream of profanities.
We idolize coaches who speak to their players that way. When men use that kind of language it is leadership. But when a woman uses language like that it is much more crass. There are gendered expectations of language. We expect women to be “lady-like” in their speech – it’s antiquated, but there still remains a kind of cringe-response to a woman who goes on a profanity-laden tirade. She’s not powerful – she’s unprofessional and inappropriate.
So when AOC repeated Yoho’s words we heard just how inappropriate they were. Because coming from her that sounded crude and menacing. When Ocasio-Cortez used the words “fucking bitch” on the floor of the Congress it was a disruption not just because the words are inappropriate, but because we don’t expect women to use that kind of language. Those words in her mouth were a double rupture. They upset decorum, but they upset our gendered expectations for language. AOC was talking like a man – and we didn’t like what we heard.
She also used herself as a kind of synecdoche in this speech. Synecdoche’ is when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. She said, “These are the words Representative Yoho levied against a congresswoman. A congresswoman that not only represents New York’s 14th district but every congresswoman in this country because all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape at some point in our lives.”
AOC describes herself not just as an individual but as all of the congressional women. And all of the congressional women have had to deal with this kind of abuse. She is just a small member of a large whole that has been attacked in this way be abusive men. This gives added gravitas to AOC’s response. Because she is not just speaking for herself but for an entire community. She is representing an entire group of people – and a group of people that, in turn, represent American citizens. As she reminds us these are congresswomen. They have been duly elected. They are respected and have been selected by the American people. So when Yoho, and other abusers, attack these congresswomen, they are attacking the extensions of the American people.
She sets herself up as a part of a whole, but not in a way that makes her seem small. She reminds her audience how important the communities she represents are. And as such, SHE is important. She deserves respect for multiple reasons: because she is an individual, and people deserve respect, but also because she is part of an important whole and that whole is valuable.
She explains that this was not personally hurtful because she has grown so accustomed to this kind of abuse.
Kenneth Burk explains that Identification is key for understanding persuasion and rhetoric.. … Burke suggests that whenever someone attempts to persuade, identification occurs: one party must “identify” with another. That is, the one who becomes persuaded sees that one party is like another in some way. But what AOC does here is the opposite of that, and to great effect. She explains that she is disconnected from the situation and the speaker. She has no consubstantiality, with this speaker. She feels a void in response to her attacker. She is numb to his abuse because the abuse has been so frequent. The speaker has lost the ability to reach her on any personal level. There is division between her and the speaker. This is a fundamentally ruptured community.
Which, she continues, is why it is important to understand this as systemic.
Yoho is not alone. Yoho is one of many attackers. Even in this case he was with a colleague. This is was part of an ongoing, sustained attack, not a one-off situation. So understanding the community as ruptured and divided is essential in understanding this speech.
But it is NOT JUST ruptured. This is more than just a division or split between communities. One part of the community is trying to disempower the other. One part of the community is abusive to the other.
But his apology only served to make matters worse. Yoho used the women in his life as a shield for his bad behavior .Ocasio-Cortez says,
“But what I do have issue with is using women, wives, and daughters as shields and excuses for poor behavior. 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….. 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. He — 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.”
Once again, Ocasio-Cortez uses herself as representative for the larger group, but this time she weaponizes that against Yoho. Yoho has tried to excuse his bad behavior by his association with women. AOC has set herself up as a representative of women – so in standing up for herself she is standing up for those same women who Yoho could possibly abuse, as well. Yoho is part of a system of abuse that includes the very women he is trying to use as an excuse for his behavior – BECAUSE it is systemic, and not individualized. By creating communities and not individual victims AOC has eliminated Yoho’s ability to use his wife and daughters as a shield for his behavior.
She has also set herself up not just as a representative of that community, but as the protector of the community. She says, “He — 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 is there to protect women, including Yoho’s family, from Yoho and men like him. She will be the voice for that abused group. She has taken this abusive situation and made it into an empowering situation for herself.
She ends with an expression of gratitude to Yoho, but it is clearly said ironically. She says,
“Lastly, what I want to express to Mr. Yoho is gratitude. I want to thank him for showing the world that you can be a powerful man and accost women. You can have daughters and accost women without remorse. You can be married and accost women. You can take photos and project an image to the world of being a family man and accost women without remorse and with a sense of impunity. It happens every day in this country. It happened here on the steps of our nation’s Capitol. It happens when individuals who hold the highest office in this land admit, admit to hurting women, and using this language against all of us.”
She sums up her speech by listing the character flaws of Yoho, even though he is as powerful, elected official who has women in his life. He represents a system of abuse.
The feminist movement is a long and storied one. Most people agree it has had three waves, and some would argue it is entering its fourth, now, though it’s hard to identify anything like that if you’re in the midst of it.
The first wave began in the mid 19th century. Many people would say the tipping point was July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Convention. The leaders of this movement were Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, and later, Margaret Sanger. While it was a varied and nuanced movement, the first wave largely focused on one major goal: women’s suffrage (the right to vote). Certainly, there were other ideas that these women talked about, but this was the major idea behind their actions.
The beginnings of the movement were sort of defined by a document signed at the Seneca Falls Conventions called the Declaration of Sentiments, which was a re-write of the Declaration of Independence. It began:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves, by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
It continued just as the original document with a list of grievances against the oppressors. These included being denied political voice. And being denied property rights once a woman was married.
But even the First Wave was a response to an abuse. Women have lived in abusive, injurious worlds for centuries, and the Women’s Movement has been a response to that abuse from the beginning. You can see how Ocasio-Cortez’s speech is a rhetorical heir of that activism.
The First Wave is generally thought to have ended in 1920 with the passing of the The 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. When the 19th Amendment passed it seemed as if the Movement had been a success and activism died down. It never completely went away. There were always women striving for working rights and, especially, the right to control their own bodies, but it would be a while before any kind of organized effort shook the nation again.
While it is not considered a wave of feminism, the next major event in the women’s movement was WWII. When men went overseas to fight in the war, women stepped up to fill in at work for them. We still have iconic images like Rosie the Riveter the represent women’s empowerment left over from that era. This was the first time women joined the work force en masse. And it paved the way for the Second Wave which was to come. When the men came back and wanted their jobs back not all of the women were so keen to leave. Women had had a taste of life outside of the home and some of them liked it.
But the Second Wave of Feminism didn’t really hit until the early 1960s and it lasted until the early 80s. In some ways it started with a book.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was a survey and study of psychology, media, and advertising. Friedan discovered, and wrote, that many suburban housewives were not satisfied with their lot in life. Friedan wanted to challenge the belief that women could only find fulfillment it roles of wife and mother, and the gender roles that rigidly defined the 1950s. The book mobilized women, and even politicians across the country to take women’s issues and causes seriously.
Soon other women would join her in the fight for women’s equality that would also become household names. Gloria Steinem was a journalist whose undercover work as a Playboy Bunny made her famous nationwide and vaulted her to the forefront of the women’s movement. Shirley Anita Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States. Bella Abzug, lawyer and US Representative, fought for (and got!) the right for women to have credit cards in their own names, which a married woman could not have until the mid-70s.
The Second Wave was a legalistic and political movement. It dealt with specific inequalities that could be addressed with policy and activism. Equal pay, equal rights, Title IX, and reproductive rights were all a big part of this movement. The Second Wave also began to embrace sexual orientation as a women’s issue. However, in many ways, the Second Wave was not particularly inclusive. It was a movement of White middle-class women. Some of this comes from it’s political and legal focus – it had a unified set of goals and messages, but often that meant excluding voices that were already marginalized. Roe v. Wade was a major victory for the Second Wave. However, unlike the First Wave, the Second Wave is seen as ending in failure when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified. When the Reagan Revolution, aided by the moral majority swept the nation, the Women’s Movement faced fierce backlash, and many of its victories were turned back or stopped dead in its tracks. As a conservative tide swept the nation, women found themselves once again relegated to the side.
The Third Wave of Feminism began in the early 1990s, and in many ways attempted to right some of the wrongs of the Second Wave. The Third Wave is an inclusive and global movement. It is focused on identity more than legality. It is intersectional, which means it focuses on acknowledging women’s different experiences and identities. So it is a feminism which acknowledges the experiences of person who identifies as a woman AND is Latina AND is an immigrant, or a person who identifies as a woman AND is Black AND is poor. Each of these experiences is different and will respond to the world in a different way.
The Third Wave argues that women’s rights are human rights. When activists for woman advocate for women’s rights they are simply advocating for what are human rights. These are the rights granted to other people (men) so they are simply rights, not gendered rights. This also globalizes the movement. Women are fighting for the rights of people everywhere – this is a movement for all people, in all places of all statuses.
Finally, Third Wave activists believe in liberating men from confining gender roles, as well. Rigid gender roles have debilitated women for centuries, but men have been no less impacted. Men have been forced into strict, harmful roles that deny themselves the fullness and richness of the human experience. Masculinity does not have to be rigid or toxic. When feminists say women’s rights are human rights they also believe that making the world better for women will make the world better for men, as well.
Fourth Wave feminism started around 2012 and strives for women’s empowerment and intersectionality, much as the Third Wave did, but is defined by new media in ways that the Third Wave was not. The Fourth Wave advocates for justice for women, vehemently opposes sexual harassment (including street harassment), violence against women, workplace discrimination and harassment, body shaming, sexist imagery in the media, online misogyny, campus sexual assault and assault on public transport, and rape culture. They also say it supports intersectionality, social media activism, and online petitioning. It also is constantly fighting the very real doubt that these things even exist in many male dominated spaces.
So Ocasio-Cortez’s speech is in many ways the culmination of these movements. She is calling out harassment and abuse against women. She is using the media to her advantage to advance her cause. And she is advancing the cause of women as human.
When AOC describes this as a rupture in community she is representing a group – this is not an individual being accosted by another individual, she is part of a movement that is advancing the cause of women. Yoho, and men like him, cannot use the women in his life as a shield for bad behavior because women are part of a larger community, and have been for generations. The women’s movement has grown – it recognizes the importance of community, but also the individual experiences of the people in that community. So AOC brings all of her experiences to bear on this situation – as a New Yorker, as a bartender, as a woman of color, as a congresswoman, and any number of other identities that she embodies. But she represents the experience of all women who have suffered abuse. And because the abuse is systemic and she represents a community, when Yoho attacks her, he makes it plain that it is okay to attack any woman. The Feminist Movement is specifically acting to fight that attitude. AOC’s speech is the result of years of women working toward empowerment and the evolution of the women’s movement.
Feminists get a really bad rap from people who are misinformed and afraid.
It is all to common now to hear people say, “I’m not a feminist, I just believe in equality.” Well, congratulations, friend, that makes you a feminist. Feminists are not man-haters (for the most part). Feminists do not believe in female superiority (in general). Feminists believe that women deserve the same rights as men do. If you believe that, then welcome to the club. If you’re afraid of the label it’s because you’ve been taught by misogynists that women who want equal rights are somehow bad.
But many feminists ARE angry.
We’re angry that medical and safety research is done on men so the female body is left misunderstood and unprotected in the practical world. We’re angry that no matter how hard we work we know we will never make as much as our male counterparts, regardless of our accomplishments. We’re angry that the stereotype is that we are constantly talking, but in reality we are constantly interrupted, talked over, and left out of conversations at work and in places where important conversations take place. We’re angry that we have been let into the workforce, but are expected to still do almost all of the housework and the childcare. We’re angry that COVID is erasing almost all of the advances the Women’s movement has made in the last thirty years because the economy depends on unpaid domestic labor and women are expected to do that at the expense of their jobs, regardless of what their job is or the situation in the home, while men continue their work uninterrupted. We’re angry that men feel they have unfettered access to our bodies. And we’re angry that because we have a point to make there are men who are going to call us “fucking bitches” not just to their friends, but to anyone who will listen. Because how dare we know things. How dare we be informed. How dare we say something contrary to him, the man.
Women live in abusive worlds. If you’re a woman you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re a man and you DON’T know what I’m talking about then the issue isn’t that the women you know are unscathed – it’s that the women you know don’t trust you enough to tell you their stories. AOC took her stand because when a man abuses a woman he makes a statement on how any woman can be treated, regardless of who she is. The question that poses for anyone, then, is who represents you? Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez represent a very ruptured community. Which one are you a part of?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.
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