Keep Your Head Down? Why Congress’s Youngest Members Aren’t Falling For This Sexist Trope
Nothing quite signals the shifting of the old guard like the rise of millennial women.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been called everything from a “little girl” and “liberal darling” to someone who “comes across like she is 16 years old.” She’s been accused of making her voice sound younger, of seeming “to lack even a modest helping of guile,” and not looking “like a girl who struggles.” Male columnists have been eager to offer unsolicited advice, telling her to slow down and “get some authority before she tries to use it.” The Wall Street Journal recently reduced the 29-year-old representative to someone “whose claim to fame is winning one election, looking cool on Instagram, and proposing ways to spend other people’s money.” And after President Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this month, one of the paper’s columnists, Peggy Noonan, tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez appeared “not spirited, warm and original” but rather, “sullen, teenaged and at a loss.”
Not only was Noonan’s comment textbook sexism — she all but told Ocasio-Cortez to smile — it also wreaked of the same condescending, ageist tone that has followed the political firebrand since she defeated a longtime male incumbent in last year’s primary. What was Ocasio-Cortez expected to do: Look older? Less teenaged? Why was the onus on her — one of many Democrats displeased by Trump’s rhetoric — to play the part of polite young lady, a nice, good girl, when the President drummed up fears about immigrants and claimed that the U.S economy could suffer if investigations into his campaign continue?
It should come as no surprise that Ocasio-Cortez, the most visible congressional newcomer in recent memory; a woman with almost five million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined; who takes receipts and calls the quacking bird with a beak a duck when others suggest it’s an alt-chicken, wasn’t having it. “Why should I be ‘spirited and warm’ for this embarrassment of a #SOTU?” she posted in response to Noonan. “Tonight was an unsettling night for our country. The president failed to offer any plan, any vision at all, for our future. We’re flying without a pilot. And I’m not here to comfort anyone about that fact.”
Disparaging Ocasio-Cortez’s age is a weapon, but what many of her critics fail to realize is that her youth is part of her power. In a time when many voters want change, nothing quite signals the shifting of the old, white, male guard like the rise of millennial women eager to take their place. And while historically, politics has tended to attract older people who stick around for a while — the average age of a congressperson in 2017-2018 was 57.8 years, and the average length of service almost a decade — it’s hardly representative. This year, millennials are poised to overtake Baby Boomers as the largest generation in the U.S., and already, they outnumber all other generations in the labor force.
In a time when many voters want change, nothing quite signals the shifting of the old, white, male guard like the rise of millennial women eager to take their place.
There’s also a clear need for more elected officials from younger generations. Just look at last spring, when multiple older Senators asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg some genuinely embarrassing questions about the social network, proving that they didn’t have a basic understanding of how it worked or made a profit. Senator Orrin Hatch, who’s 84, asked Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” The Facebook founder replied, “Senator, we run ads,” before cracking a smile. It was a cringe-worthy moment for younger audiences, who no doubt stared at their screens and thought, These are the guys in charge of this thing?
Enter the newly-elected millennial women sworn into Congress this year. Ocasio-Cortez has dominated headlines, but there’s also Rep. Abby Finkenauer, 30, one of the first women to represent Iowa in the U.S. House; Rep. Lauren Underwood, 32, the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress; Ilhan Omar, 37, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress; Xochitl Torres Small, 34, a water rights lawyer in New Mexico and the first woman to represent her district; and and Katie Hill, a 31-year-old advocate for the homeless, assault survivor, gun owner, animal fosterer, and married bisexual. During her campaign, Hill embraced being dubbed “America’s most millennial candidate,” and also her “resting bitch face” or what she called, in true millennial fashion, her “RBF.” All six of these Congresswomen ran in highly contested primaries or general election races. All six of them replaced men over the age of 50 — five of them white men.
That’s good news for representative government, and it’s good news for Democrats: In last year’s midterms, 65 percent of women ages 18-29 voted blue, and they backed their own, ushering a record number of women into Congress. Anyone who didn’t see millennial women coming for the ballot wasn’t paying attention. According to the Brookings Institute, a public policy nonprofit, millennials are more diverse and more educated than previous generations. And their size and influence predictably makes them a coveted voting bloc. Once stereotyped as entitled and aimless, millennials — or people 23-38 years old — have arguably become the most powerful demographic in the country.
It makes sense that the old guard would think their age would be the most effective mode of attack. And why wouldn’t they? Women have long been expected to be smart, but keep their heads down; to learn from people who supposedly know better, but wait (and wait...and wait) until someone tells them it’s their turn. Then, after years of gaining experience, they can find themselves being considered past their expiration date. (One of the main arguments against Rep. Nancy Pelosi becoming House Speaker again was that at 78, she was too old, and had been around the chamber too long even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is almost the same age, and has served as Senate leader longer than any other Republican.) This generation isn’t playing by those rules: Millennial women have been skirting norms by working more, earning higher degrees than their male peers, marrying later (if at all), having kids later (if at all), and demanding action on everything from the wage gap to sexual assault and harassment. Now in Congress, millennial women in politics are creating their own rules, too. If the old script dictated that women — especially young women, especially young women of color — were the last to be heard and the first to be told to wait their turn, the new script, one being written even as I type this, calls for those very same women to stand up, speak out, and clap back.
Depending on who you ask, this shift is either exhilarating or terrifying.
If the old script dictated that women — especially young women, especially young women of color — were the last to be heard and the first to be told to wait their turn, the new script, one being written even as I type this, calls for those very same women to stand up, speak out, and clap back.
Hill recognized that her age was a benefit, rather than a deficit, even on the campaign trail. In October, she told Rolling Stone, “Millennials smell the B.S. If you want young people to actually be excited, to feel like there’s any reason to show up to vote, you have to truly have something for them to connect with. That’s easier for me than for a lot of candidates because I am young. I know what it’s like to be faced with student loans, to have rent so high you don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to save up and buy a home. The issues the people of my generation are going through are natural for me because I’ve lived them, my friends are living them.”
Underwood similarly told NPR, “In [Illinois’s] 14th district, our community has never elected a woman to Congress. The only people that have ever come out of our district are middle-aged, white men. And so I think that there’s just an interest in having a different voice represent our community now. And the fact that I am a millennial woman of color is very different.”
Older members might learn something too: Critics might talk about their lack of political experience, but no one can belittle millennials’ social media savvy — which is why some older Democrats are leaning on them for guidance. Ocasio-Cortez — who expertly uses Instagram stories to bring her supporters along for the ride, including when she’s eating ramen or downing ice cream after a long day on the Hill — has been happy to school her more senior colleagues on the topic. “Don’t post a meme if you don’t know what a meme is,” she recalled telling them. She also uses her Twitter account to educate people on what politics as usual really means. Likewise, the new millennial women in Congress are embracing their supposed “naivete,” which has made them even more relatable to younger voters. The day she was sworn in, Finkenauer shared a photo of her parents, writing, “I call this one: ‘A retired union pipefitter welder and retired public school secretary walk into their youngest daughter’s Congressional office.” During the government shutdown, Hill, Ocasio-Cortez, and Underwood were part of a group looking to hand Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a letter demanding that he put an end to the madness that had left more than 800,000 government workers without pay. They shared it with their followers on social media, using #WheresMitch.
This isn’t to say their influence is confined to hashtags and character limits, although their ability to effectively use social platforms to reach people has had an impact on Democratic messaging. Hill and Ocasio-Cortez are now part of the prominent House Oversight and Reform Committee, which keeps the president’s power in check and can also investigate potential executive wrongdoing. Ocasio-Cortez is also hard at work on the Green New Deal, and has ignited public discourse on tax rates. Finkenauer passed her first bill last month, one aimed at helping small businesses in rural areas. Underwood, a registered nurse and expert in health policy, introduced legislation to protect those with pre-existing conditions. Omar, who wears a hijab, helped prompt a new rule allowing head coverings to be worn on the House floor for religious reasons — making the chamber more welcoming for current and also future members. And Torres Small, a member of the Committee on Homeland Security whose district includes 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, co-led a border tour for House Democrats interested in sensible security measures.
Fearless and unapologetic, in touch and unintimidated, the new millennial congresswomen are adding valuable perspectives to a governing body rich in years and experience, but at times lacking in relatability and accessibility. Eventually, it should get boring for people to mock their age, their young looks, their voices. Eventually, we can hope pundits will stop using the word “girl” to describe grown women elected to office. And if not, if those comments continue, then we’ll know the critics have nothing else to go with — they’re just lashing out. Kind of like a bunch of sullen, unspirited teenagers.
Caitlin Moscatello is the author of the forthcoming book SEE JANE WIN, to be published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, later this year.