Because most women will tell you it’s a pretty universal experience, especially if they’ve held a position of power in the workplace. “I’d say, maybe 25 times?” estimates Ellen Gerstein, who spent years in technology publishing, a fairly male-dominated field, before becoming a pharmaceutical executive. “And that’s just to my face.”
In fact, Gerstein says, use of the word as a slur against women has come to feel so unfortunately routine that her own memories of it tend to blur together — unlike, say, the time 20 years ago when a male colleague asked her who she’d “lap danced” to push a project ahead. But she says she was filled with admiration when she heard Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take to the floor of the House and call out a male colleague for vulgar words.
“I thought, listening to her, ‘Wow, you’re 100% right,’” says Gerstein, now 52. “Why didn’t I apply those same standards to myself?”
Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks last week, widely shared online, amounted to a stunning indictment not only of the words of Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, who she said called her a “b****” in front of reporters, but a culture of abusive language against women that can lead to violence. Her speech resonated with many women — in politics and out, supportive of her politics or not — who said the language had been tacitly accepted for far too long.
The moment was extraordinary, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, not because the language was new — as Ocasio-Cortez herself said, it was nothing she hadn’t heard waiting tables or riding the subway — but because of where it took place, and especially because the freshman congresswoman had the confidence and the support of her colleagues to call it out in such a public way.
“This is all part of a shift,” Walsh says, attributing the change to the #MeToo movement, in large part. “Women are feeling empowered to speak up and believe they will be heard.” More than a dozen Democratic colleagues — but no Republicans — joined Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, in speaking out against sexist behavior, including from President Donald Trump.
The moment led Gloria Steinem, the nation’s most visible feminist advocate, to reflect on her own struggles with the word Barbara Bush once famously said “rhymes with rich.” “It took me years to learn what to do when someone calls you a b****,” Steinem said. “Just smile in a calm triumphant way, and say, ‘Thank you!’” Steinem, 86, said she hadn’t realised the strategy could be helpful to other women until it made it into the script of a recent off-Broadway play about her life, “and every night, women in the audience burst out in big relieved laughter.” Still, Steinem noted, “Refusing to be hurt may not really change the people who are trying to hurt you.” She called for both “cultural and workplace penalties for such behaviour,” and, more profoundly, “raising our children to empathize and treat others as we want to be treated.”
Gerstein, too, says she found it helpful to re-purpose what was intended as a slur into a compliment. “I didn’t want to feel like a victim, so my theory was to own it,” she says. “As if to say, ‘What you’re really saying is I’m tough, I’m bossy, I’m determined and I’m damned good at what I’m doing.’” Ocasio-Cortez “owned” the word as well when she tweeted, in response to Yoho’s alleged remarks: “We get stuff done.”