Even though Florida Representative Ted Yoho put a target on his back when he had the gall and cluelessness to use the House floor to double down on a cowardly attack on New York Representative Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez on the Capitol steps, I have to confess to being bothered by the acclaim for her speech putting him in his place. It’s been hailed as a model for women. My take is that if women have to be pitch perfect in order to score a win, we’ve made perilous little progress.
In case you managed to miss this contretemps, AOC was trundling up the Capitol steps for a vote when Yoho and his colleague, Texas Representative Roger Williams, were descending. As recounted in The Hill in Ocasio-Cortez accosted by GOP lawmaker over remarks: ‘That kind of confrontation hasn’t ever happened to me:
In a brief but heated exchange, which was overheard by a reporter, Yoho told Ocasio-Cortez she was “disgusting” for recently suggesting that poverty and unemployment are driving a spike in crime in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You are out of your freaking mind,” Yoho told her.
Ocasio-Cortez shot back, telling Yoho he was being “rude.”
The two then parted ways. Ocasio-Cortez headed into the building, while Yoho, joined by Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), began descending toward the House office buildings. A few steps down, Yoho offered a parting thought to no one in particular.
“Fucking bitch,” he said.
Even though Yoho has since tried to deny this account, first in his speech on the House floor, where he effectively tried to pass of the idea that as a husband and father, he didn’t use dirty words, and then later by claiming he said “fucking bullshit” and the reporter heard incorrectly, I have yet to see any evidence that Yoho has demanded a correction from The Hill.
Ocasio-Cortez was walking up the east front steps of the Capitol to cast a vote Monday afternoon when both Yoho and Texas GOP Rep. Roger Williams approached her as they were walking down the steps.
Yoho erupted at her instantly and kept “escalating the situation,” she said.
“Do you really believe that people are shooting and killing each other because they’re hungry? You know, You’re unbelievable. You’re disgusting,” Yoho said, according to Ocasio-Cortez, saying the Florida conservative was wagging his finger at her.
Ocasio-Cortez then said she “tried to calm him down, but he wouldn’t.”
“And then I just told him he was being rude and he got even more angry, when I called him rude,” she said.
If you read the full account, Representative John Williams also went off the deep end.
For your convenience, below are the dueling speeches, first from Yoho:
Needless to say, these remarks aren’t an apology. Yoho does not even own up to getting in AOC’s face, much the less calling her names. And the excuse that he didn’t say “fucking bitch” to her directly, or that AOC has no business opining about the social effects of poverty because Yoho was once poor and therefore knows better, is precious.
Now to AOC:
Needless to say, this was fine speech. Her presentation looked off the cuff, and she made her case concisely. She was explicit that she would have let Yoho’s confrontation pass had he not escalated by going to the House floor, a point too often lost in media coverage. She also displayed emotional range, getting a quaver in her voice when she mentioned her deceased father, then shifting to a steelier tone when she returned to Yoho’s offenses.
Her final charge, that men like Yoho brandish their status as family men as proof of character, is empty, that being a husband and father does not confer decency, indicted hoary yet still-firmly-entrenched notions of propriety. AOC’s observation vitiates the long-established conservative position that starting a conventional family is proof of maturity, respectability, and hence fitness to lead.
So what’s not to like? The problem I have is that the praise of AOC is effusive. That signifies that it is still exceptional in America for a woman to be able slap down a boorish but influential man. Only an unquestioned political talent like AOC can do so, and even then, she had to deploy the authority of her office.
AOC was also aided by class trappings: despite coming from a modest background and having worked in bars, AOC absorbed elite social skills (the posture of graciousness, the relaxed manner, the measured cadence of speech) during her time in private school, while Yoho, a hard core Tea Party Republican, apparently believes that he gets a free pass for being true to his views, which includes not just being opposed to abortion but also opposing making lynching a hate crime.
Look more carefully at what happened in the altercation. AOC is 5’4″ and small framed. I can’t find either Ted Yoho’s or Roger Williams’ heights, but Yoho is beefy and looks to be at least average male stature (5’10”) and probably taller. Two of them coming down the stairs, looming over AOC, would only increase the level of physical intimidation. And to make clear who was boss, Yoho got in AOC’s face and wagged his finger.
It is seldom discussed in polite company how much of much of male-female interactions revolve around women avoiding challenging men because the average man can beat the shit out of the average woman. Why do women smile so much? Make requests rather than give orders? Understate their incomes when they make more than their significant others? Even let men drive and otherwise pander to men’s manliness? Because they have been deeply indoctrinated to be afraid of pushing a man so far that he strikes out. Mind you, this isn’t just based on individual experience; in fact, I suspect only a minority of women have been hit by men growing up, and then that likely occurred in families when boy children would have been beaten too. It comes in the pressure on girls to be demure and not rowdy, in the ways girls are subtly discouraged from competing with men by excelling in science and math, and even in popular role modeling. For instance, I am now subjected to regular doses of TV crime shows. With the exception of NCIS LA, the female cops and agents are completely dependent on guns. Even with watching these shows out of the corner of my eye, I’ve seen way too many instances where female law enforcement officers wind up pleading with a male aggressor when they should have had the training to render him incapable of acting despite the women being smaller, slower, and weaker.1
In other words, the strong conditioning for women not to meet a male bully with anger, or even to get confrontational, limits their ability to respond effectively to dominance threats, even in situations where violence is not in the cards. It’s so hard to find real life examples that I’m forced to rely on a fictionalized account. In the movie Erin Brockovich, a biopic of sorts, Erin is portrayed as a corporate Pretty Woman: an attractive and super smart woman from the wrong side of the tracks who learns how to operate and rises as a result. Erin is transgressive, and early on wears trashy clothes and doesn’t understand basic office behavior. She’s also volatile and treated as borderline comical in how she blows up when confronted with bullying or pandering.
In this clip, our heroine has made considerable progress in learning the professional ropes but the old Erin comes roaring out when provoked. The attempt at dominance here is delivered by a woman but the power dynamics are the same as if a man were in charge. Notice how Erin interrupts her boss and takes over the meeting:
So the fact that AOC walked a not-sufficiently-well-recognized gender and power minefield successfully was the real reason her speech got so much notice. It’s sadly all too reminiscent of how women were viewed at McKinsey back in the stone ages of the 1980s. No matter how well a woman manager had done, when she approached the partner selection window, almost inevitably, doubts were voiced about her “style” which was code for “Can she build relationships with/sell to senior executives?” The presumed answer was always “no.”
Women nevertheless deemed to have potential were sent to Roger Ailes (yes, that Roger Ailes) for coaching. And despite the regular determination that women up for partner somehow didn’t have the magic “it” factor, most of the ones who left walked into jobs where they successfully sold to McKinsey-type executives. One woman even started a firm doing exactly what she had done at McKinsey and landed so much business that she had hired 24 people by the end of the first month.
Shorter: it should not be a headline event for a woman to dress down an asshole colleague, but it apparently is in America.
Actually, there is a real world counterpoint to the AOC-Yoho contretemps, and it comes from Australia. Despite the regular use of coarse speech down under, the flip side is Australians also tolerate directness from women better than Americans do. It is also worth noting that Australia has done a lot better on gender equity than the US. When I was in Sydney, in 2002 to 2004, public companies were required to have to have at least one woman director on their boards. And people in business, politics, and the press all agreed that the women directors were better than the men.
Similarly, Australia has made more progress with pay equity:
The key factoid embedded in that graph is that the highest gender pay gap in the last 20 years in Australia took place in November 2014, at 18.5%. As the data from the National Committee on Pay Equity shows, the best level the US has attained in the last 20 years, of a pay gap 20.4%, is worse that Australia’s worst performance. And this isn’t a matter of women having lesser credentials or focusing on family-friendly professions that are less well paid. A recent Bloomberg report on MD pay found that woman doctors made 14% to 20% less even in the highest paid specialities.
So even though I can’t explain why, the pay data alone attests that Australia is further along in achieving gender equity than the US.
Further confirmation comes via this speech by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (oh yes, and Australia has had a female national leader too), in which she dressed down the smarmy head of the opposition, Tony Abbott. This speech has been voted the most unforgettable moment in Australian TV.
You’ll quickly observe that Gillard freely shows anger, but it’s a cold sustained fury, not a hot display that could easily be stereotyped as harpie-like. And despite using notes only to make direct quotes, you’ll also see she demonstrates her deliberateness and control through her use of rhetorical devices, particularly anaphora (“I was offended….I was offended”). Lambert correctly regarded her speech as a classic in the making when it was broadcast, and did a long-form, much discussed analysis. I hope you’ll take the time to read his post, since it also illustrates how Parliamentary debate shows our US legislative chatter to shame.
Gillard does not play a class card either. Her chewy Australian accent has no signs of elocution-buffing into plumminess; she’s also wearing merely nice lady manager attire, while the smirking Abbott’s suit looks finely tailored. In other words, Gillard didn’t have to wear power clothes to show her authority. She knows she has it. It’s too bad American women feel they have to send so many signals just right to be taken seriously.
1 The key is being trained to be disinhibited about inflicting trauma, like gouging someone’s eyes out, and then knowing what points on the body are vulnerable.