Almost two years ago, drinking at the bar while I waited for my flight out of Portland International Airport, I overheard an older man talking at the couple next to him. Clearly, they wished to be left alone, but they patiently endured his blather, which quickly turned to politics. He brought up “AOC” — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and asked the unfortunate travelers if they knew about her. They gave no sign of familiarity with this shorthand, so their interloper described the congresswoman he meant in contemptuous terms: “She’s that loudmouth girl from New York.”
This made me angry enough that I still remember it, among all the forgotten chatter of the many hours I’ve spent in airports. I hated that he could easily reduce an inspiring leader to some sexist, racist, paternalistic stereotype even while outlining the grave threat she posed to Real America. I told myself he was only parroting what right-wing hosts on talk radio and cable networks had said about Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the House’s progressive “Squad,” in an incoherent mix of fear-mongering and condescension. But later it dawned on me that this went higher still: Conservative media took these cues from the floor and halls of Congress itself, where AOC, along with Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib deal with sadly common workplace sexism — the difference being that these aggressions play out in public.
“Trickle-down” economics, or the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy and big businesses will ultimately enrich the working class and society as a whole, has been debunked again and again, even as Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have succeeded in passing legislation on that lie. But there is evidence that a cultural trickle-down effect is real, particularly where it comes to the atmosphere of a place like the U.S. Capitol.
The inside-the-Beltway publication Roll Call reported in 2019 that female Congressional staffers were enthusiastic about women including Reps. Katie Hill and Susan Wild drawing attention to institutionalized sexism on the Hill, and felt it had already diminished the harassment, freeze-outs, belittling and other inappropriate behavior from the powerful men they worked alongside. Of course, as that guy at the Portland airport indicates, the parallel also holds: Continued misogyny toward female representatives and senators trickles down from D.C. to Fox News to Twitter to main street.
While some attacks on the Squad have been disgustingly racist (Omar and Tlaib, as the first two Muslim congresswomen in U.S. history, endure rank Islamophobia from their colleagues and mainstream press), the universal constants have been antifeminist rhetoric and a gendered policing of their tone, wardrobes and qualifications. Instead of arguing actual politics, the GOP, its pundit class and the red voter base delegitimize them on the basis of Washington as a historic boy’s club: Women do not belong in Congress, meaning any priority they voice in those chambers can be dismissed out of hand.
When they rightly identify this condition as an obstacle to legislative process, as AOC did last summer by reading Rep. Ted Yoho’s characterization of her as “a fucking bitch” into the record before inviting other women to relate their experience of similar mistreatment, they are accused of cheap spectacle, hysteria and emotional meltdowns. It’s used to reinforce the line that they are too thin-skinned for the combat of a two-party system.
Meanwhile, opponents including Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham alternate between depicting AOC as a child in way over her head or the Lady Macbeth of the left, both a pitiable naïf and the scary socialist arch-villain pulling the senior Democrats’ strings. Which to believe? This is a classic paradox of misogyny — that women are helpless, yet master manipulators.
Republicans scoffed at the Squad’s harrowing accounts of the Capitol riot on January 6th, a deadly, traumatizing attack by extremists who plainly intended to harm Trump’s enemies. They claimed, falsely, that that this was more exaggeration from a bunch of drama queens. It’s crucial to recognize that this type of sexism sets the parameters of the discourse for everyone else. Women-hating men in niche online forums, in law enforcement, in the medical field and in every branch of academia, industry and art are operating on biases instilled from birth by the structure of a nation founded by, and for, men. Congress, conceived as a site of enlightened debate and compromise, instead models the inequality and indignities faced by women at every level of power, from the federal to the domestic. By keeping the focus on whether they have the right or capability to govern, conservatives invite ordinary citizens to doubt, smear and undercut all women in their ambitions, no matter how modest. It’s a course in discrediting female peers.
We’re fortunate to have more women than ever in Congress to root out sexism there, but they can’t be left to eternal self-defense. Progressives of every identity, in every job and on every platform must call it what it is: cowardice. An attempt to deflect from policy issues and avoid the intellectual challenge of defending a failed ideology. The GOP aims to coast on a national inclination to demean and trivialize women before hearing what they have to say. But, despite this cynical effort, the message is getting out. And we the people can amplify it a millionfold.