Ever since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Congress as the youngest woman elected to the House, she has upended traditions, harnessing the power of social media and challenging leaders, including President Donald Trump, who are 50 years her senior.
On Thursday, she had her most norm-shattering moment yet when she took to the House floor to read into the Congressional Record a sexist vulgarity that Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., had used to refer to her.
“In front of reporters, Representative Yoho called me, and I quote: ‘A fucking bitch,’” she said, punching each syllable in the vulgarity. “These are the words Representative Yoho levied against a congresswoman.”
Then Ocasio-Cortez, who excels at using her detractors to amplify her own political brand, invited a group of Democratic women in the House to come forward to express solidarity with her. One by one, they shared their own stories of harassment and mistreatment by men, including in Congress. More even than the profanity uttered on the House floor, where language is carefully regulated, what unfolded over the next hour was a remarkable moment of cultural upheaval on Capitol Hill.
“It happens every day in this country,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It happened here on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.” And then, in an unmistakable shot at Trump, she added, “It happens when individuals who hold the highest office in this land admit to hurting women and using this language against all of us.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., recounted how a male Republican lawmaker had once lashed out at her during a debate on the House floor, sternly calling Jayapal, 54, a “young lady” and saying that she did not “know a damn thing” about what she was talking about. Jayapal did not name the lawmaker, but she was referring to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, whose insults of Jayapal were captured on video in a 2017 incident that was widely reported at the time.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. and the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, recounted her own experiences as a “20-something lawmaker” in Florida’s Statehouse and again as a member of Congress in her 30s.
“Few women here watching have not felt a man’s bullying breath or menacing finger in our face as we were told exactly where our place was at work,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in Washington, offered her own account: “I can tell you this firsthand, they called me names for at least 20 years of leadership. You’d say to them, ‘Do you not have a daughter? Do you not have a mother? Do you not have a sister? Do you not have a wife?’ What makes you think you can be so — and this is the word I use for them — condescending?”
It was the third straight day that the confrontation had consumed the Capitol. It began Monday when Yoho approached Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps and told her she was “disgusting” for suggesting that poverty was driving crime in New York City.
After a brief but tense exchange, The Hill newspaper said in an account later shared by Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, Yoho walked away from her, uttering the vulgar phrase.
In her tweet, Ocasio-Cortez embraced the insult, remarking, “But hey, ‘b*tches’ get stuff done.”
By Wednesday evening, the media-savvy Ocasio-Cortez had sprung into action to create a disruptive and viral event. Her aides emailed invitations asking her fellow lawmakers to join her Thursday on the House floor, when she planned to discuss how she “was accosted and publicly ridiculed,” according to a copy of the invitation.
By Thursday morning, 13 Democratic women in the House and three men, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic majority leader, had turned up on the floor to speak for her. There were the three liberal women who with Ocasio-Cortez make up the so-called squad — Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — but also moderates like Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.
Ocasio-Cortez began by saying that she would have been willing to let the incident pass until she heard what Yoho called an apology. Yoho offered some words of contrition Wednesday for the episode, but he declined to apologize to Ocasio-Cortez for his language, denying that he had used the phrase and arguing that his passion stemmed from his concern about poverty.
A spokesman for Yoho said he used a barnyard epithet to describe her policies, not insult her.
“The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues, and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding,” Yoho said on the House floor. He concluded, “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.”
But Ocasio-Cortez had had enough. “That I could not let go,” she said in her speech Thursday.
There was more.
“Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters,” she said. “I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter, too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of the House toward me on television, and I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter, and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”
Republicans have long labored to cast Ocasio-Cortez as an avatar of the evils of the Democratic Party, a move that Ocasio-Cortez has used to bolster her own cheeky, suffer-no-fools reputation. When she cast her vote for Pelosi for speaker while wearing a white suit as an homage to the suffragists, members of the predominantly male House Republican conference booed her. She retorted on Twitter, “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas.”
Republican leaders were also not impressed with her speech Thursday.
“When someone apologizes they should be forgiven,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, told reporters. “I don’t understand that we’re going to take another hour on a floor to debate whether the apology was good enough or not.”
By Thursday afternoon, a video that Ocasio-Cortez shared on Twitter of her floor speech had been viewed over 6 million times.
Hoyer, for his part, initially called Yoho’s apology “appropriate.” But after it became clear that Ocasio-Cortez was not satisfied with Yoho’s remarks, Hoyer called the words a “nonapology” and called Yoho’s actions an attack on women.
“All the men on this side of the aisle are supportive of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all of her sisters,” Hoyer said.