Aggressive. Loud. Opinionated. Bossy. And that other “B” word… “b***h”…
Oh, sure, I’ve been called my share of names including THAT one… it’s an occupational hazard for women leaders. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is the latest woman leader to hear the words, and she took the extraordinary step of calling them out on the floor of the United States House of Representatives: “disgusting, crazy, out of my mind, dangerous…. rude…” and a “F*****g b***h” Another member of Congress, Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL), allegedly used those words in reference to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez. He then offered an “apology” that was anything but. So, the Congresswoman took to the House Floor to address the issue. Like so many of us, she’s heard it all before, and she said so as she delivered a powerful speech calling out the misogyny and violence that tolerates profound disrespect for women and women leaders. “Dehumanizing language is not new,” she said of the “pattern of dehumanizing women and others…” through name-calling. She went on, in reference to Congressman Yoho’s defense that he has a wife and daughters so could not be a misogynist, “Having wives and daughters cannot be a shield or excuse for poor behavior…” and “…. having a daughter does not make a man decent… Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” She went on: “My mother did not raise me to accept abuse from men.” She said that the incident demonstrates how powerful men give other men permission to demean women. “That is not acceptable!” declared the Congresswoman. Watch Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s full remarks on the House floor:
Women leaders across the ages can certainly give similar testimony to the verbal abuse they have suffered and the deleterious effect of such name-calling on women’s self-respect, ambition, courage, confidence and ability to move forward. Not every woman has the passionate response of an AOC or the steely resolve of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or the cool and steady style of Hillary Clinton.
But beyond the obviously ugly and shameful words that Rep. Yoho hurled toward Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, there’s another kind of equally misogynist language that men (and some women) use toward powerful women that is also devastating — and this kind of language is often used by those who claim to be supporters and allies in the cause of women’s rights. We’re seeing this language play out right now in the public discussion of the possible candidates to be Joe Biden’s running mate. A number of outstanding women leaders have risen for consideration, and all have impressive resumes.
But like clockwork — the inexorable clock of women making progress until time rolls back on us again — the murmuring undermining the women candidates has became loud enough to wind up in Politico and other gossip rags masquerading as news sources. Some of the women mentioned are “too ambitious” for goodness sakes! One might not be satisfied with being the vice president and might see herself as the president some day! Quelle Horreur (no mention of the irony that Joe Biden was recently the vice president, now seeking the presidency…)! (I think the last man in all of human history to be negatively described as “ambitious” might have been Julius Caesar, or perhaps that was just Brutus’s excuse for murder.)
Some commentators also note that the accusation about being too “ambitious” is leveled against Black women like Senator Kamala Harris, in particular, and pits women of color against each other.
Another woman candidate for veep is “opinionated!!! Imagine that! Having opinions is a no-no if you want to be…. what? Aren’t opinions essential to leadership?
Another woman was called “bossy” and still others seen as “rubbing people the wrong way.” Oy.
And, on the other side of the left-handed-compliment line, a candidate rising in favor is seen as someone who will not make waves, meaning she is definitely #2 receding-into-the-woodwork material (something VP Pence does quite well.) Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin skewers the “stench of sexism” in her column on this topic.
The negative tropes about women leaders are tiresome, but also dangerous because they shape public perception in exceptionally harmful ways. No doubt about it, while the 2016 election suffered from many problems, the inchoate dislike of Hillary Clinton had long roots in negative rhetoric about powerful women.
Trinity Alumna and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Class of 1962, has the best response for women who are the objects of the negative rhetoric, and also for the young women who see all of that ugliness and start thinking twice about public leadership. “Know your power,” she says, insistently and repeatedly. KNOW YOUR POWER. Your power is exactly why people are noticing you, and are criticizing — don’t shy away from that, embrace it! Speaker Pelosi has certainly done that time and time again.
The other thing that all of us who are women leaders right now can do is to work on confronting and changing the rhetoric. We need to bring other women along in this effort, since sometimes it’s the disdain of other women that sets us back harder than any taunts of men. We need to promote a new vocabulary describing women leaders.
I propose that we start with the good “B” words and use them often: women leaders are…
Bold. Bodacious. Beneficent. Brainy. Brave.
And…. as circumstances warrant…. Badass!!
See my essay on authentic women’s leadership in the Journal of Higher Education Management starting on p. 89 Women’s Leadership in Higher Education