The recent election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress has evoked a fair amount of ridicule among persons taken aback by her youth and ideology. She is the “telegenic it girl of the left” according to Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis. CNBC notes that she has only $7,000 in savings; this is a millennial who is so financially irresponsible that she cannot afford an apartment in D.C. until her first congressional paycheck. And because she wears “that jacket and coat [she] don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Even worse, she is Puerto Rican with “an ethnic name” (per Rush Limbaugh).
No matter one’s political affiliation, it is worth noting that ridicule has been a strategy of silencing women in politics for centuries. One of the first British women to publicly engage in politics was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. In 1780, this high-born lady had the nerve to appear on stage with a Whig candidate. Her canvassing on his behalf led cartoonists to display her as a voluptuous temptress who showed off her thighs and exchanged kisses for votes. Eventually, she had to drop her political activities to avoid further embarrassment.
Unfortunately, this slut-shaming of women politicians still appears in the modern era. When researching Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, one may stumble across searches such as “Ocasio-Cortez and breasts” and “Ocasio-Cortez and body pics.” Sexist and sexualized criticisms used to undermine women are not only leveled at left-leaning women in US politics—Nikki Haley, for instance, has been accused of having an affair with President Trump (an allegation she called “disgusting”). Another recent example is a left-wing blogger calling Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, a “whore” after a political defeat. This could be flabbergasting to anyone who has observed May’s demure clothes and manners—far from what the insinuation brings to mind. However, the sexualization of any woman in the public sphere means that the male gaze will supersede her credentials and expertise.
On the other hand, a powerful woman may evoke a different type of ridicule that portrays her as a freak of nature. The editorial cartoons of Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” who became Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979, include pictures of her with an imperiously long nose and un-feminine stocky body. One cartoon depicts her cavorting with vultures, while others published shortly after her death show a devil cowering in fear of her.
Women who speak out, then, must risk being called freaks of nature—as seen in the 1829 cartoon of Fanny Wright, an outspoken abolitionist and feminist. The image features a goose in a dress standing at a podium and gabbling away. Obviously, she is speaking nothing but nonsense and “deserves to be hissed,” as the cartoonist suggests. In that era, Wright’s critics regarded a female public speaker as violating the laws of nature. Those who argued against the women’s suffrage movement also stressed that allowing women any political power violated God’s laws. Traditionalists may still regard a female public speaker as equally abnormal as a goose proselytizing in a black dress.
One parallel between Ocasio-Cortez and Wright is that they both advocated for positions that apparently challenge the existing social order. Ocasio-Cortez has promoted Medicare for all, mobilization against climate change, and tuition-free public universities. Wright had gone even further in her time by criticizing religious institutions. Her radical ideas included the suggestion that children be sent to boarding schools to be educated outside the home, which outraged many who believed that she was trying to impose atheism on society. By rejecting blind faith in religions, advocating for freedom and education for enslaved Americans, and promoting women’s rights in an era when they had almost none, Wright must have appeared as a freak to many.
Another source of ridicule of women politicians is their unorthodox histories. Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, has worked in restaurants and bartended. Her story is tame compared to that of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who ran for president; Woodhull had been a child psychic, a 15-year-old bride to an alcoholic, a cigar girl at a raunchy San Francisco port, the first female stockbroker (alongside her sister), a publisher, and a proponent of free love. When she ran for president in 1872, she was called both a lunatic and a prostitute.
In the face of such ridicule, why would any sane woman even want to run for office? Women may simply want to use their brains and exercise their leadership skills. Margaret Chase Smith once expressed her motivations that had resulted in her becoming the first female senator in 1949: “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.” Despite being called silly geese and other insults, women are determined to become political leaders.
Featured image credit: A downright gabbler, or a goose that deserves to be hissed by James Akin. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks, though Margaret Chase Smith was not the first woman US Senator. (Smith was the first from Maine.)
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