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New Congress, New Women: respectability politics in the age of Trump

The freshman class of the 116th United States Congress took office on Jan. 3 and has been making waves in both the media and the chamber ever since. The fresh faces heralded many firsts, including the youngest woman and the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress in a large Democratic sweep; however, the exchange of power to more marginalized groups—working women of color specifically— has not been entirely welcomed.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) is of the few that have made a name for herself by breaking the traditional barriers surrounding a congressional seat. Most notably, Tlaib said at a MoveOn Campaign reception for the new members of Congress that “we’re going to go in there and we’re going to impeach the [expletive],” in reference to President Donald Trump.

Her comment sparked a whirlwind of controversy surrounding proper congressional etiquette. To be frank, the argument that a congresswoman shouldn’t be speaking in such a crass manner made no sense, especially now, in this new era of ordinary people in extraordinary official positions, and is cursing not entirely ordinary?

While Tlaib was attacked for her tone, Beto O’Rourke (Texas Democratic Senate candidate), dropped several expletives throughout his campaign, and no one even blinked perfectly revealing that this country operates on a double standard that binds women in an inescapable manner.  When O’Rourke dropped expletives, he was met with support and applause (as well as #Beto2020), but when Tlaib followed suit, the same people championing Beto’s language as “passionate” called hers “uncivil” and “decisive These different reactions aren’t because the two were speaking in different manners; it’s because O’Rourke is a white male while Tlaib is a Palestinian woman, and those differences in ethnicity and gender have always led American society to treat people with different standards.

Tlaib, being a woman of color, is held to a higher standard, but she refuses to conform to the norms society puts forth for women like her. Instead, she chooses to march on, change the status quo, and always speak “truth to power.”

There is power in her simple response. She, like just about every other brown-skinned female in this country, has faced discrimination every day of her life, and by choosing to remain true to herself, she empowers a generation of women like her. And she’s not the only one.

Amidst the Tlaib controversy, 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the youngest woman ever to hold a seat in Congress, has received enormous media coverage since her election, even before being officially sworn into office. Recently, she was misattributed to a quote which contained an expletive by various news articles. Ocasio-Cortez called out the news organizations on Twitter for taking advantage of the opportunity to show “brown women cursing” to reinforce negative tropes about women leaders.

Media outlets like Fox News have field days criticizing everything from a short clip of Ocasio-Cortez dancing in her office to her rented business garments; if she had showed up in the “struggling worker” attire that she was known for during her campaign trail, she would have been condemned for not showing proper respect, but adhering to the proper congressional clothing requirements now is considered “against her identity” and a “misuse of taxpayer money.” Ocasio-Cortez has also received criticism for her “scandalous” live streams, in which she prepares food in her InstantPot and discusses politics while answering questions from her Instagram following.

An active supporter of the “Green New Deal” and other progressive policies, Ocasio-Cortez has also been repeatedly denounced for her bluntness and calls towards immediate change. She is an avid advocate for a 70 percent top tax rate, a policy that many have jumped to criticize, despite the overwhelming success of a 70 percent marginal tax rate on America’s highest wealth bracket during the decades after World War II, which led to the most successful period economic growth in our nation’s history; this idea is only considered “radical” because it is coming from a working-class woman. Political veterans have called her “naive” and that she “has yet to learn the job,” while Ocasio-Cortez has already jumped into action in carrying out the plans she vouched for so strongly during her campaign.

Promising a “shake-up” to the political stage, the new representatives have certainly delivered not only by breaking records and ceilings, but also by bringing the direct needs of the common people to the congressional floor. Their “controversies” are merely a show of normal human attributes that have only been brought into the limelight because they are women, and women of color at that. The truth of the matter is that these new congresswomen have done nothing blasphemous outside of posing the “threat” that is simply existing as women who show true commitment to change.