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Examining The Roles Gender And Race Play In Political Discourse

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A heated exchange on the steps of the Capitol. A reporter overhears a congressman aim a sexist vulgarity at a congresswoman, then an apology that many women felt came up short. Events last week that led to this viral moment on the House floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: What Mr. Yoho did was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters. He gave - in using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community. And I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable.

MCCAMMON: That, of course, is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York. She's talking about Florida Republican Ted Yoho, who apologized for what he called the abrupt manner of the conversation and suggested there had been a, quote, "misunderstanding." The confrontation between the two lawmakers is prompting a lot of discussion about the roles gender and race play in political discourse and the ways that women in leadership often are treated. Joining me to talk more about this is Kimberly Peeler-Allen of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Welcome to the program.

KIMBERLY PEELER-ALLEN: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: We are not going to repeat what a reporter for The Hill heard Yoho call Ocasio-Cortez. But suffice it to say that many women know the phrase all too well. And it followed him calling her to her face, quote, "disgusting and out of her freaking mind." And it reminded a lot of women of the times their male colleagues have used language in an attempt to demean them. What made this moment different?

PEELER-ALLEN: I think what made this moment different is the fact that the congresswoman just said, I'm not going to let this pass. Enough is enough. And I think there is just so much in this moment across this country, whether it is racial injustice, sexism, misogyny. People are just - have had enough. And she said, you know, I'm not going to let it stand and let this be business as usual because something has to change.

MCCAMMON: There was another, less-publicized incident in Nebraska's legislature just this past week when a male state senator told a female colleague to, quote, "shut up" during a floor debate over an abortion bill. And the female senator says he made an obscene gesture toward her. Why is behavior toward women that would get someone hauled up to HR in many workplaces still happening in politics?

PEELER-ALLEN: Well, I think it is because the structure, the premise of these legislative bodies across this country were built on the pretense of white supremacy and white male patriarchy. So corporations and businesses have evolved, you know, tremendously, particularly in instances the people that they serve and, you know, financial interests, et cetera where they've had to put these structures in to safeguard women, where in the halls of our legislative bodies, it is still very much a sense that men, you know, control the majority. And the voice of women upsets the power structure. So any time that a woman steps up to speak truth to power, there is the, you know, sense that it is pushing back on what has always been. And that is often met with vitriol and violent language and inappropriate conduct.

MCCAMMON: And Ocasio-Cortez, of course, is also a woman of color. How does race play into these gender power dynamics we've been talking about?

PEELER-ALLEN: Oh, it is a huge piece of this. Just having women enter into a space that was built for white men is one thing, and then you add a woman of color. That is a whole other level because of the racism and that sense that people of color - their voices are not as valuable, that their leadership does not have any strength or have any value to the larger discourse, which really shows the intent to keep the same voices around decision-making tables, which, you know, guarantees that there are huge swaths of this country that are not being properly represented because they don't have that seat.

MCCAMMON: So does this speech by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez - does it move the needle on any of this at all? I mean, will it have a chastening effect on this kind of speech against women and people of color?

PEELER-ALLEN: Yeah, I think it will. I think it really shows the importance of speaking up in this moment that we're not going to tolerate this anymore and that if you are not speaking up when you see something - that you are actually also part of the problem.

MCCAMMON: That's Kimberly Peeler-Allen of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. Thank you so much for talking with us.

PEELER-ALLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.