Ask a woman if she’s been called the B-word by a man — perhaps modified by the F-adjective — and chances are she’ll say, “You mean ever, or how many times?”
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 on Thursday, 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 “f—————g bitch” 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 bitch,” Steinem told The Associated Press in an email. “Just smile in a calm triumphant way, and say, ‘Thank you!’”
Steinem, 86, said she hadn’t realized 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 behavior,” 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 repurpose 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: “Bitches get stuff done.”
That itself was a throwback to a 2008 sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler discussed the slur as often applied to Hillary Clinton. “Yeah, she is. And so am I,” notes Fey on the “Weekend Update” segment. “You know what? Bitches get stuff done.”
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, much like the word “queer.”
“We don’t get to control who uses it and how,” explains Zeisler. “We can only control the way we conceive of it.”
Of course, context is everything. When used as Yoho allegedly did, the word is intentionally gender-specific and heavy with implied power dynamics, says Walsh, of Rutgers.
It “otherizes women, it dehumanizes them and tells women they don’t belong in these institutions and positions,” Walsh says. “It is about silencing women and keeping them out.”
Jen Singer, a freelance writer in New Jersey, says that “when men call you a bitch, it’s a warning shot across your bow — a reminder that they have power and you had better not overstep your bounds.”
It’s the feeling that Jennifer Bogar-Richardson, an educator also in New Jersey, felt when she learned that a superior had referred to her as a “ho” in a meeting with colleagues years ago, using words from a Chris Brown song to indicate she’d been disloyal.
“I felt naked,” says Bogar-Richardson, 44, “because it obviously didn’t matter how smart I was, how intelligent or how well I did my job. I’m nothing more than that name.”
Mila Stieglitz, a 22-year-old New Yorker who graduated college in May, found herself feeling conflicting emotions as she watched Ocasio-Cortez’s speech.
On the one hand, she was disheartened to learn of the sexist language experienced by the congresswoman — at 30, only eight years her senior — something she’d hoped was more an issue for an earlier generation. On the other, she said she was inspired by her outspokenness, and the support she received from colleagues.
“As I enter the workforce, I recognize there’s been so much progress since my mother’s generation, for which I’m grateful,” Stieglitz said. “But these instances also highlight to me how much more needs to be done.”