Two days prior, on the steps of the Capitol, Ocasio-Cortez found herself in a heated conversation with Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). He called her “disgusting,” he said she was “out of [her] freaking mind,” and when the discussion ended, Yoho allegedly uttered the words, “f---ing b---h.”
In her Thursday speech, Ocasio-Cortez said she’d planned to ignore the insult — that being a woman had required a lifetime of ignoring such insults — but changed her mind after Yoho himself brought up the matter in his own speech in the House. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language,” Yoho had said, insisting that he'd been misheard and hadn’t used the pejorative phrase that a reporter from The Hill heard him say. While Yoho apologized for the “misunderstanding,” he said, “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.”
It is not clear how or why loving one’s God and country would require a member of Congress to have a public meltdown on Capitol grounds, but it was the first part of Yoho’s fauxpology that bothered Ocasio-Cortez — the implication that Yoho could not or would not behave misogynistically because, after all, he had a wife and daughters.
“I am someone’s daughter, too,” she said. “Thankfully, my father is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect of me on the floor of this House, on television. I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter, and they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”
She continued, “This harm that Mr. Yoho tried to levy at me was not just directed at me. When you do that to any woman, what Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters. . . . I am here to say, that is not acceptable.”
The first-term New York representative has repeatedly shown herself to be a talented writer and public speaker, on subjects of poverty, classism and inequality. On the subject of misogyny at least, her Thursday address was the speech of a lifetime.
She addressed the pervasive and ludicrous concept that sexist men listing their female family members is an ironclad defense against charges of sexism — as if Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump haven’t had wives and daughters.
She acknowledged the insularity of the “wives and daughters” argument: People who use the phrase often seem only to understand harm when they picture it befalling their own loved ones. But women are not harmed as wives or daughters; they are harmed as humans. Their pain exists regardless of whether the men in their life can see or imagine it. Their value does not come from their relationships to husbands and fathers, but from their own individual personhood. People are people whether you personally know them or not.
Most important, she made it clear that her grievance was not with a profane sentence, but with the story it appeared in — a long history of casual misogyny disguised as “passion” or even, God help us, as patriotism. Rep. Yoho presented his own explosive emotions as righteous, while allegedly casting Ocasio-Cortez as the b---- who made him explode.
It is worth noting that while Ocasio-Cortez lays all of this out, she does so in a tone of voice that never veers above mild irritation. In her floor speech, which totals about 10 minutes, she never raises her voice or resorts to calling names. She is exactly as measured as women are always expected to be, and as men are always assumed to be. And she made it clear that, to her, none of this was personal.
“I do not need Rep. Yoho to apologize to me; clearly he does not want to,” she said.
But she couldn’t stop thinking about her nieces, and about all of the women who might have witnessed the exchange, and the accumulation of casual, tossed-off misogynist epithets that women absorb day after day, decade after decade.
If Rep. Yoho couldn’t bring himself to apologize to her, perhaps he could consider them.
“Having daughters is not what makes someone a decent man,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he 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.”
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.