Ever since Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her Democratic primary, which basically ensured that she would win her general election, she has been a magnet for criticism from both sides of the aisle. Experts on the issue say it reinforces research showing how ambitious young women are treated differently than men.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, called out what she sees as a trend in how her critics treat her as opposed to how they treated outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), a white male who was elected at 28 and went on to be the Republican Party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. She tweeted:
Critics have taken aim at her appearance and fashion choices, her knowledge about basic government facts and her talk of the challenges finding housing in Washington. Last week, the soon-to-be lawmaker got into a Twitter spat with the president’s eldest son after he tweeted a meme claiming that socialists eat dogs.
This week, a day after Ocasio-Cortez accused exiting White House chief of staff John F. Kelly of “cowardice,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway dismissed her on “Fox and Friends.”
“He is in his fifth decade of public service, and this country owes him a debt of gratitude, not the nonsense that’s been spewed about him, even recently from the left and from this 29-year-old congresswoman who doesn’t seem to know much about anything when you ask her basic concepts about the economy, the Middle East, military funding — really embarrassing,” Conway said.
Jean Sinzdak, associate director at Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, said she believes Ocasio-Cortez’s assessment of the double standard is correct.
“In our decades of experience at the center, this has been a constant refrain from women officeholders and candidates we’ve talked to,” Sinzdak said. “For women in politics, it is an almost universal experience that they are held to a higher standard and need to work harder to be taken seriously. Many women of color also talk about the double burden they face, as women and as people of color, in combating the perceptions that they are not qualified enough. We have heard so many stories from women officeholders about being dismissed or ignored because of their gender and/or race — as I said, almost a universal experience.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, a democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House, told The Fix that Congress is seeing a host of young women who are not interested in continuing business as usual.
“Men and women are held to different standards in Washington and around the country, but the men in this Congress better figure out times are changing, and quick,” Jean-Pierre said. “Because this new class of freshmen women are not going to take a back seat to anyone — and they shouldn’t. Ocasio-Cortez and many of the incoming freshmen are not playing the usual Washington game — and she shouldn’t. But that is scaring a lot of people.”
While the lawmaker-elect is pushing back on what she considers to be mistreatment, the greater consequence is that it could be deterring other young women from entering politics. A report by the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics shows that young elected leaders are overwhelmingly likely to be male, creating an imbalance of men and women in office overall, and that young women are less likely to run for elected office than young men.
There are at least two possible outcomes here. Despite all of the attention paid to the historic number of women sent to Congress this year, interest in continuing the trend could be stalled if constant criticism of young women lawmakers — especially those of color — is so severe that it makes it unnecessarily difficult for them to do what they came to Washington to do. Or the negative pushback could motivate and mobilize young women on Capitol Hill in ways that Americans have not previously seen, to tackle sexism and ageism not just in the halls of Congress — but nationwide.