Women reflect on sexist insults that often go unpunished

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Ask a woman if she’s been called the B-word by a man – perhaps modified by the adjective F – and there’s a good chance she’ll say, “You mean never, or how many times?”

Because most women will tell you that it’s a pretty universal experience, especially if they’ve held a position of power in the workplace. “I would say, maybe 25 times?” Says Ellen Gerstein, who spent years in tech publishing, a fairly masculine field, before becoming a pharmaceutical executive. “And it’s just for my face. ”

In fact, Gerstein says, the use of the word as an insult against women has become so sadly routine that his own memories tend to fade – unlike, for example, in the days of 20 years ago when a male colleague asked her who she had “lap dance” to move a project forward. But she says she was filled with admiration when she heard Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take the floor of the House and call a colleague for vulgar words.

“I thought to myself as I listened to him, ‘Wow, you’re 100% right,’ said Gerstein, now 52. ‘Why haven’t I applied those same standards to myself?

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on Thursday, shared widely online, amounted to a staggering indictment not just of the words of Rep. Ted Yoho, of R-Florida, who she said called him an “f ———- g slut “In front of journalists, but a culture of abusive language towards women that can lead to violence. Her speech resonated with many women – in and outside politics, supporting his politics or not – who said the language had been tacitly accepted for far too long.

The timing 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 but ‘she hadn’t heard Metro – but because of where it took place, and mostly because the first-year MP had the confidence and support of her colleagues to call her out so publicly.

“It’s all part of a change,” Walsh says, attributing the change to the .MeToo movement, in large part. “Women feel empowered to speak up and believe that they will be heard. More than a dozen fellow Democrats – but not Republicans – have joined Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, in speaking out against sexist behavior, including from President Donald Trump.

The moment made Gloria Steinem, the country’s most visible feminist advocate, reflect on her own struggles with the word Barbara Bush once said “rhymes with rich.”

“It took me years to figure out what to do when someone called you a bitch,” Steinem told The Associated Press in an email. “Just smile in a triumphant and calm manner and say, ‘Thank you! ”

Steinem, 86, said she didn’t realize the strategy could be of use to other women until it was incorporated into the script for a recent off-Broadway play about her life, “And every evening the women in the audience burst out in relief. to laugh. ”

Still, Steinem noted, “Refusing to be hurt may not really change the people who try to hurt you. She called for “cultural and professional sanctions for such behavior” and, more profoundly, “for raising our children to empathize and treat others as we want to be treated.”

Gerstein also says she found it helpful to turn what was meant to be an insult into a compliment. “I didn’t want to feel like a victim, so my theory was to make it my own,” she says. “As if to say,” What you’re really saying is I’m tough, I’m bossy, I’m determined, and I’m damn good at what I do. ”

Ocasio-Cortez “owned” the word too when she tweeted, in response to Yoho’s alleged remarks: “Sluts do things. ”

That itself was a throwback to a 2008 skit on “Saturday Night Live,” in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler discussed the insult as often applied to Hillary Clinton. “Yeah, she is. And me too ”, notes Fey on the segment“ Weekend Update ”. ” You know what? Sluts do things. ”

Feminist author Andi Zeisler, co-founder of the nonprofit Bitch Media, notes that the sketch marked the beginning of a long and evolving process of women “reclaiming” the word, just like the word ” queer ”.

“We don’t control who uses it and how,” Zeisler explains. “We can only control the way we think of it. ”

Of course, context is everything. When used as Yoho would have, the word is intentionally gender-specific and heavy with an implicit power dynamic, says Walsh of Rutgers.

It “alters women, dehumanizes them and tells women that they don’t belong to these institutions and positions,” says Walsh. “It’s about silencing women and keeping them out. ”

Jen Singer, a freelance writer from New Jersey, says that “When men call you a slut, it’s a wake-up call in your bow – a reminder that they have power and that you better not go overboard. limits. ”

This is the feeling that Jennifer Bogar-Richardson, also an educator in New Jersey, felt when she learned that a supervisor called her “ho” in a meeting with colleagues ago. for years, using words from a Chris Brown song to indicate that she had been disloyal.

“I felt naked,” says Bogar-Richardson, 44, “because obviously it didn’t matter how smart I was, how well I did my job. I am nothing more than this name.

Mila Stieglitz, a 22-year-old New Yorker who graduated from college in May, found herself feeling conflicting emotions as she watched Ocasio-Cortez’s speech.

On the one hand, she was disheartened to learn the sexist language experienced by the congresswoman – at 30, only eight years her senior – which she hoped was more of a problem for a generation before. On the other, she said she was inspired by her outspokenness and the support she received from her colleagues.

“As I enter the workforce, I recognize that there has been so much progress since my mother’s generation, which I am grateful for,” Stieglitz said. “But these examples also show me how much remains to be done. “

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