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AOC knew she’d face a backlash for talking about her trauma. There’s a reason she told us anyway

Ocasio-Cortez talked about her terror during the Capitol riot as well as her own experience with sexual assault on Instagram Live on Monday

Kathleen N. Walsh
New York
Tuesday 02 February 2021 17:56
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AOC tears up as she details hiding from Capitol rioters, looking to kill her

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spoken about her experience during the Capitol insurrection before, but never as openly about the trauma of the event or the emotional impact it had on her as she did in an Instagram Live on Monday night. The Congresswoman described in detail where she was hiding, the bangs on the door, the shouts of “Where is she?”, and how she thought she was going to die that day. Importantly, she also shared her own story of sexual assault. 

In the traditionally male-dominated world of American politics, personal emotions are generally considered poor form. This is evident in the impulse that made then-Vice President Mike Pence refuse to leave the Senate floor, even as insurrectionists were literally calling for his head mere feet away. It was evident when Congress resumed the very same night, to show that they could not be frightened into submission by rioters. It was evident when President Joe Biden insisted on an outdoor inauguration despite the threats, to show that he was not afraid. 

And though Biden as a politician is in many ways defined by his empathy and grief for his son, when First Lady Dr Jill Biden spoke at the Democratic National Convention, she chose a particularly telling anecdote as a demonstration of her husband’s character: “Four days after Beau’s funeral, I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror — take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son. He went back to work.”

This kind of firm, suck-it-up-buttercup stoicism is based in a tradition of toxic masculinity, in which emotion, fear, and trauma are signs of weakness. Now there are more women in power in government than ever before in the nation’s history, and they are bringing women’s work to the national stage by sharing the truth of their trauma. This is the emotional labor necessary to truly understand where we are as a country, and what needs to be done to move on from it. 

Later in the evening on Monday, Congresswoman Katie Porter appeared on The Lawrence O’Donnell Show to share her own memories of January 6, when she was barricaded in with Ocasio-Cortez. She spoke, as she often does, as a mother: “I said ‘Don’t worry, I’m a mom. I’m calm. I have everything we need. We can live for like a month in this office. And [Ocasio-Cortez] said, 'I hope I get to be a mom, I hope I don’t die today.'"

In describing the events, Ocasio-Cortez included that she is a survivor of sexual assault, describing the impact of compounded trauma, and drawing comparisons between “these folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize,” and abusers. In other words, she is rejecting the model that tells public figures to be stoic, cold, and unaffected by trauma. And more poignantly, she’s rejecting a culture that dismisses and delegitimizes the reality of trauma — especially women’s trauma — as a matter of course.

Other prominent women politicians have begun doing the same.

Representative Cori Bush described in detail the harassment she endured from her colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene, to the extent that she was forced to move her office. But Bush has also been radically open about being a survivor of domestic abuse, both physical and emotional. In The New York Times, the Congresswoman describes the relationship in detail, as well as the emotional scars it left. Before very recently, it was not common for politicians to share such painful and intimate stories from their own history. 

Earlier this year, when Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was targeted by a terrorist militia group who plotted to kidnap and possibly murder her, she did not pretend she was not scared. “When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard. But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this,” she stated in her official response. And in an interview with NBC she said, “I'm still not sure if I processed it all, to be honest.” 

It is perhaps not unrelated that in 2019 Whitmer also spoke about her sexual assault. “The statistics don’t show what pain [survivors] carry,” she said, continuing, “If I could erase that year, I would. But I am not ashamed of it … It’s my responsibility to speak up, especially when others have not found their voices.”  

Putting forth such honest, and indeed vulnerable, personal histories has prompted a predictable backlash. In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s video, while many were supportive of the Congresswoman, plenty of men took to the internet to accuse her of whining, being “hysterical,” overreacting, and even using emotional manipulation. It is this attitude that worked most forcefully against Dr Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony against Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It is also the attitude that casts doubt on practically all accusations women make of assault, the thinking being that maybe she’s “just overreacting”, as women do. 

This kind of backlash highlights even more forcefully just how necessary the personal testimony of our political leaders is; how necessary it is to speak honestly about trauma, in order to fight the persistent impulse of society to dismiss women as “hysterical.” This is work. And all too often, even now, it is still women’s work. 

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