“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.”
These were the words uttered by U.S congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the floor of the House of Representatives last week, part of her powerful response to the misogynistic verbal abuse and non-apology she’d received from Republican Ted Yoho.
These words, and her entire speech, struck a chord with women and for some in Australia’s federal parliament, like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, they hit close to home.
In November 2018, Hanson-Young delivered a similarly distinguished speech in the Senate, after former Senator Barry O’Sullivan made derogatory remarks towards her.
“Real men don’t insult and threaten women, they don’t slut-shame them and they don’t attack them and make them feel bullied in their workplace,” she said in that speech. Her words also came after a well-publicised incident where former Senator David Leyonhjelm said, “You should stop shagging men, Sarah.”
Hanson-Young later won a defamation case against Leyonhjelm when he refused to offer an apology, where the judge found he had tried to “publicly shame” her. She was awarded $120,000 in damages, donated by the Senator to Plan Australia and the South Australia Working Women’s Centre.
The similarities between Ocasio-Cortez’s words and that of Hanson-Young are uncanny and speak to the collective experiences of women in politics, where sexism and verbal abuse remains all too present.
“I have sat in the chamber for weeks and weeks – months – and heard the disgusting slurs and attacks coming from a particular group in this place, and I for one am sick of it, and I know many of my female colleagues on all sides of politics are sick of it too,” Hanson-Young said in her speech.
“A particular group of men come into this place and hurl insults across the chamber. Expect to be called out and expect to be named and shamed from here on in, or lift the standards.”
Ocasio-Cortez also said verbal abuse was something that all women in politics – and all walks of life – deal with continually.
“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,” she said. “All of us, have had to deal with this in some shape, some form, some way, at some point in our lives.
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Watching @aoc call out a fellow politician who called her a ”F***ing B**ch” sounded all too familiar . Calling out this behaviour is so important if we want it to change. And of course a woman in Australian politics I know all too well, this cultural impunity is not unique to America, it happens here too, all the time. . The more women and decent men who stand up and call this out the better chance we have of changing behaviour and attitudes towards women, everywhere.
Hason-Young told Women’s Agenda that Ocasio-Cortez’s speech reflects a mood for change, of which her own speech and legal action against Leyonhjelm played a part.
“AOC joined what’s becoming the international movement calling for change. We are closing the curtain on sexism and sexist bullying in politics,” she says. “AOC’s speech reflects the mood for change around the world which my legal action and calling out bad behaviour in the parliament was part of it.”
“The more women and decent men who stand up and call this out the better chance we have of changing behaviour and attitudes towards women everywhere.
“This is about reflecting the kind of world we want our daughters to live in and that’s not being abused in their workplace, whether that’s the parliament or the shop floor.”
After her legal action last year, Hanson-Young wrote on Twitter: “When men do the wrong thing, they should apologise. Most men do. But when they don’t they should be called out.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s words are, once again, remarkably similar, echoing Hanson-Young’s desire to “draw a line” under this kind of behaviour.
“When a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologise,” she said. “Not to save face, not to win a vote, he apologises – genuinely – to repair and acknowledge the harm done.”