While I’ve been called a “f*cking b*itch” many times in my life, I remember the first time vividly. It was in eighth grade over AOL instant messenger, also known as AIM, an early digital chat platform widely-adopted by Millennials. These words came from a boy in my class, one I had a crush on at various points, for voicing my opinion on some tween drama we were entwined in, the details of which I barely recall. However, I do remember reading those words on the screen and wanting to cry. It was clear from that exchange that my opinion didn’t matter and that he was using this painful tool to deter me from sharing it. Unfortunately, it worked. I stopped engaging and took it in silence.
The same thing happened again with a high school boyfriend after he learned that I confronted a female classmate who had been talking to him behind my back about his and my relationship. In this circumstance, he called me that name on the phone when several other boys in our class were with him, one of which was a close friend of mine. I remember being equally hurt by my friend’s complacency as I was by the words used by my own boyfriend towards me. Sadly, I think only my friend, the bystander, regretted his actions (or lack thereof).
By the time I got to college, the use of that epithet stopped having the same digging effect. As a women, you often become numb to it as time passes, but the intention behind its usage is always the same – you spoke your mind or held your ground and that will not be tolerated. Emotional abuse is all about tone and intention and when using this type of language towards a woman in an aggressive manner, the intention is clear. Calling women by these names is a threat – stop or else – with the implication being that the person will escalate their aggressive behavior towards you if you do not cease (standing up for yourself or others, voicing your opinion, etc.).
I know I am one of countless women who was impacted by what happened to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”) on the steps of Congress last week. She was verbally accosted and physically intimidated by a Congressman whom she had never even spoken to before. In addition to calling her a “f*cking bitch” under his breath in front of a reporter, the Congressman also told AOC to her face that she was “disgusting”, “crazy”, “dangerous” and that she was “out of [her] freaking mind.” Another Congressman present during the exchange plead ignorance rather than denouncing the outburst. Mirroring my experience in high school, here was yet another example of a member of a male posse standing by while another man flexed his abusive muscles towards a woman.
The Congressman’s vicious attack was in response to AOC voicing her thoughts on the correlation between rising crime rates and unemployment in New York City, two issues that are highly relevant to her constituents and her job. Notably, male members of Congress have also been increasingly hurling verbal abuse at women on both sides of the aisle after disagreeing with their opinions on governmental issues. Differences of political opinion aside, vicious name-calling, insults and physical intimidation have no role in any productive debate. Any high school debate coach could tell you that. But, in addition to being counterproductive to their role as legislators, this type of behavior is destructive and unacceptable.
AOC mirrored my experience with verbal, sexist abuse to an eerie degree (she is also the exact same age as I am). In her speech to Congress addressing the incident, she describes the pervasive pattern of weaponizing words to harm and disarm women: “This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
While the personal instances I shared were not among coworkers, I’ve seen the behavior I experienced from boys be routinely perpetuated by men. The number of times our Firm founder and my mother, Francine Griesing, has mentioned instances where male lawyers or clients used those words or worse to threaten or intimate her is too high to count. Over the years, I watched her evolve her response to this type of berating and demeaning treatment – she stopped taking it. In one way or another, she conveyed that this behavior would not be tolerated, not by her and not by anyone on our team. She also began sharing her experience and knowledge of how women could best deal with bullying and bias and what industry leaders can do to break the cycle of harassment. It can take years of receiving this type of mistreatment throughout your life to build the confidence and status to fight back. This journey is by no means an easy one, but it has to start somewhere and with someone – that is how a true leader is born.
Discussions of leadership have never been more important and more relevant, as there are eyes and ears almost everywhere these days. Someone is always listening, recording, or watching, especially if you’re a prominent person. Witnessing women in positions of power and authority stand up to bullying and intimidation by men is a life changing experience for me and so many other women. It demonstrates that we as women can and deserve to be strong and outspoken in our convictions while setting boundaries for those who cross the line. AOC’s words that struck me the most in her address were: “I have to show my parents that I am their daughter and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.” I could not agree more. We must change what is accepted and expected from our leaders and hold them to a higher standard of conduct as perpetrators, victims of and witnesses to misogynist behavior. If those with influence can’t or won’t stand up for themselves or for us, then who will?