The following day, Ocasio-Cortez offered her own remarks on the House floor about the incident, accompanied by short speeches from male and female party colleagues. News commentary described Ocasio-Cortez’s floor speech as “a comeback for the ages,” a “viral condemnation of sexism in Congress” and “the most important feminist speech in a generation.”
The speech’s impact is likely to be felt far beyond this country, given growing awareness that violence against women in politics is a global problem, limiting women’s participation and effectiveness. In particular, Ocasio-Cortez confronted a widespread but rarely discussed form, which I call “semiotic violence” in my research.
Violence against women in politics differs from violence in politics
Violence is a central but contested concept in the social sciences. While often measured in terms of physical harm, violence is typically discussed in a more expanded way as a violation of integrity — affecting not only a physical body, but also a person’s autonomy, dignity, self-determination and value as a human being. What makes violence “bad” is thus not only the experience of injury and suffering, but also the social meaning of being harmed.
In my recently published book, I distinguish two phenomena: violence in politics and violence against women in politics. The first involves conflicts over political ideas, when healthy democratic debate is replaced by violent attacks against a political opponent. In contrast, violence against women in politics strikes adversaries based on their personal identities, questioning women’s right as women to participate in the political process at all.
Sexism and misogyny may not be the only source of abuse, of course. Politically active women such as Ocasio-Cortez, who inhabit the intersection of more than one marginalized identity — including those based on race, class, age, sexual orientation and religion — may be more likely to come under assault. The same is true for women who are more visible politically or who express open support for feminism and other social justice causes.
Until recently, violence against women in politics has largely been ignored or treated as simply the price women pay for seeking to be politically active. This abuse has remained relatively invisible, because gender-based violence is often treated as natural. Those who perpetrate it refer to familiar social inequalities, invoking group-based stereotypes to justify putting women “back in their place.”
As Ocasio-Cortez noted: “This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and having a language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) observed: “What brings us to this moment are the structural and cultural conditions … that have normalized the marginalization of women and specifically women of color since this nation’s very inception.”
Semiotic violence exploits words and images to harm women
Global institutions discussing violence against women in politics recognize four types of violence: physical, psychological, sexual and economic. The first three are identified in the United Nations’s Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), and the fourth was added to international frameworks via the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention (2011).
My research — drawing on a global data set of news items, practitioner reports, autobiographies and original interviews — finds that acts of violence against women in politics are not limited to these four categories. Missing is the use of words and images to injure, discipline and subjugate women, or “semiotic violence.”
Group-based insults aim to reinforce inequalities between groups. According to sociology professor Tania Levey, slurs about women communicate beliefs about essential gender differences, women’s inferiority to men and women’s lack of ownership over their own bodies. Some gendered epithets use sexual shaming to deny women basic human dignity, while others dehumanize and discredit women to silence their voices and stifle their participation in public discourse.
In my book, I argue that the power of semiotic violence comes from being performed in front of a larger public. Although directed at particular individuals, verbal or image-based attacks send a message that the person’s group is unworthy, aiming to affect how society at large views members of that group. Studies show, for example, that using sexist language or sexually objectifying a female candidate can substantially reduce voter support — unless such attacks are called out as “sexist.”
This is what such violence looks like in practice
Identifying the injuries inflicted by words, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) remarked that “slurs like the one used by Representative Yoho are meant to degrade, objectify and belittle women.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) pointed out: “The impact of using this language against any woman dehumanizes women and girls and sends the message to other men that women are valued less than a human being.”
Separating the individual and public meanings of these words, Ocasio-Cortez clarified that “Yoho’s comments were not deeply hurtful or piercing to me,” but “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.”
As Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) summarized: “This is not just about one woman, one incident or one verbal assaulter. This is about respect and fundamental equality.” Demanding accountability, according to Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), is “what we owe to all women, especially our daughters. … The days of bullying women … in these hallowed halls of Congress are over.”