Watching Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s spellbinding speech calling out Rep. Ted Yoho for his remorselessness after verbally abusing her at the Capitol (he called her a “fucking bitch,” among other things, then gave a non-apology), reminded me of growing up around my single mother, and her mom, my grandmother. My maternal grandfather was around, but barely.
My mother had divorced my father before I was two, and had full custody of my elder brother and me, working in advertising (very Mad Men) to pay the bills. Our troubled father died when I was seven, just as I was getting to know him. My mother had a boyfriend when I was a teenager, and although I liked him, he was not a big influence.
My mother and grandmother, however, were very influential. Although from opposite sides of the political spectrum, these women were strong-willed, brave, and intolerant of abuse enacted on themselves or others. Each of their strong personalities enlivened their homes, where I would watch and learn.
I recall my five-foot-two mother standing on our screened porch in the middle of a summer night, yelling into the darkness at the screaming man trying to break down the door of his girlfriend’s house, just across the driveway from us. “You sonofabitch!” Mom hollered, quite loud. “I’m calling the cops!”
The disco dandy boyfriend called my mother “a fucking bitch,” kicked his girlfriend’s door, broke his foot, and fled.
My grandmother was lured into an elder-abuse scheme when she was in her late seventies. Some grifters tried to trick her into giving them money. It was a sophisticated caper, but she not only got wise, she got indignant, and offered herself to local law enforcement. The police successfully used her as bait to catch the criminals. She loved it. Later, she admitted she was afraid. But she did it anyway.
Some rich kids – boys – stole my mother’s VW Bug and went on a joyride through Atlanta, burning out the clutch. When they were caught, their dads were dismissive of my mom, and just wanted to know “how much it would take to make this go away.” Rather than accept money, Mom arranged for the boys to do yard work. I will never forget them shamefacedly cleaning our gutters, raking the leaves. That kind of shame – the shame of being chastised, schooled by someone you deem less-than – can metastasize into hatred, especially if nurtured by parents and stoked by fear.
Even before this incident with Rep. Yoho, I recognized a similar fear-and-shame based hatred being directed at AOC by men who sought to diminish her. Our current president, clearly afraid, told her to “go back where she came from.” (Uh, Queens?)
I’ve been in rooms where fear of women has arisen in the form of sexist jokes. In weak moments of my youth, I engaged. I think this made me feel autonomous from the women whose will power dominated much of my life. Their big personalities sometimes made it a challenge for me to feel as free as I would have liked. Disconnecting from them, dehumanizing their gender, offered a momentary feeling of power, especially to a scared boy trying to feel safe. In that moment of disrespect, of abuse, their pain was not my pain. The boys accompanying me had learned to objectify women from dads I idolized, and I could be an apt pupil. Even so, shame would always dog me later.
Perhaps because no male figure was there to help morph that shame into actionable hatred, I would become intensely drawn to women who, like the women of my childhood, would not allow sexist (or racist) bullshit to stand. And when I see the truth-to-power intensity of AOC at the Capitol, I feel not surprise but recognition, and considering the groundswell of reaction, I feel hope.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.