the body politic

The Imagined Threat of a Woman Who Governs Like a Man

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Politico posted a provocative, anonymously sourced piece claiming that New York congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might be planning, in concert with Justice Democrats, to recruit a Democratic primary challenger to her fellow New York congressman Hakeem Jeffries in 2020, in part in response to his undercutting of California congresswoman and progressive stalwart Barbara Lee in a November House leadership election. Ocasio-Cortez later dismissed the piece, calling it “birdcage lining.”

However inaccurate the facts in Politico’s reporting may have been, the piece was useful and telling — the expression of a building fever dream about Ocasio-Cortez, and the fears of what she might be capable of, should she continue to flash her unprecedented willingness to make bold demands and push her party where she thinks it should go. Ocasio-Cortez’s eagerness to flex her muscles, without demurring or waiting for her turn — without even waiting to be sworn in — is undergirding nightmarish fears about her as an agent of chaos and destruction. The Politico story itself was illustrated with an image of the Bronx native appearing to literally rub her hands together while grinning like Dr. Evil.

Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think of Naomi Alderman’s brain-bending novel, The Power, published last year. It depicts a world in which women develop the power to inflict physical pain, and to kill, via electricity that emanates from their fingers. In Alderman’s fictional universe, this power is exhibited first by young women who in turn awaken it in their elders; as they are learning the possibilities and limits of their new power, the women giddily experiment with it, sending sparks and currents, determining how much of it they have, whether they can control it, and how they might best deploy it.

The book is extraordinary because it forces readers to think about all the ways — within our social, sexual, professional, and political relationships — in which men’s power over women is so much taken for granted that we don’t question it, don’t even notice it. But when women acquire an equivalent force, chaos and fear reign. The Power read to many, and was regularly reviewed as, a piece of chilling dystopian fiction. But as Alderman herself has said, “It’s only a dystopia for the men … nothing happens to a man in this book that is not happening right now to a woman somewhere in the world.”

What the reaction to Ocasio-Cortez makes undeniable is that if and when women gain enough power to start behaving, in a political sphere, as men have for so long, they will be viewed with fright and discomfort.

Jeffries, a popular incumbent who is generally (though not universally) well-regarded by progressives, supposedly wound up in Ocasio-Cortez’s crosshairs in part because of his own recent tactical moves, which reportedly helped gain him a House leadership position.

In October, he jumped into the race against Lee for Democratic Caucus chair just a few weeks before the midterm elections. Lee was hoping to become the first African-American woman in history to serve in party leadership. According to the Intercept, she had believed that she had the votes, but Jeffries was helped at the last minute by one of his mentors, Joe Crowley, the long-serving New York congressman who’d been beaten in his June primary race by Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley reportedly falsely intimated to caucus members that Lee had donated to Ocasio-Cortez in advance of the primary, depicting her as supportive of the insurgent spirit Ocasio-Cortez has come to symbolize. Some of the votes Lee thought she had locked down changed, and Jeffries won the caucus chair slot by ten votes.

Tuesday’s piece suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez — angry at having been used to defeat a woman she admires by a man she beat — might want to oust Jeffries, prompted an affronted response. “Can we call this out for being dumb?” Bakari Sellers tweeted, calling Jeffries “one of our most talented members.” The actor Jeffrey Wright gravely noted that “quick fame is a funny thing,” apparently in reference to Ocasio-Cortez, and the columnist Michael Cohen predicted that Ocasio-Cortez was going to “wear out her welcome very quickly.”

In some ways, the strong defense of Jeffries wasn’t surprising. He’s extremely popular in his district, belongs to the Progressive Caucus, and is widely understood to have ambitions to succeed Nancy Pelosi as his party’s leader and become the country’s first black Speaker of the House. Jeffries may be a lovely man and a decent progressive, but it is also true that in his efforts to gain leadership of his party, he relied on a network of old-school male power (a network invested in its own form of revenge) to defeat a beloved and ideologically unimpeachable woman. No, this isn’t a capital offense; it’s not a shock; it is, in fact, just politics — what happens every day, not just in Congress but in workplaces around the country.

It happens in part because networks of power are built by and around men, especially white men. To the extent that they permit the entrance of those who are not white men, it is often black men (like Jeffries) and white women who are admitted and supported. But Lee is a black woman who was running for a leadership position in a party that relies on black women’s votes and electoral and activist labor yet rarely acknowledges, let alone endorses, their authority by electing them to positions of leadership.

There has historically been little cost to undercutting women of color on your way to power, because neither white women nor black men have had the power or the inclination to stand up for them in the way, for example, that Crowley and his supporters are alleged to have done for Jeffries in his leadership bid. And also because, hey — once you have the power, you have the power; who’s going to come for you once you ascend?

The tantalizing (or terrifying) possibility laid out in this small — overstated, perhaps even fantasized — story about Ocasio-Cortez coming for Jeffries was that we could, perhaps, imagine these dynamics changing, and that is shocking. Naturally, Ocasio-Cortez would be livid if a falsehood related to her campaign, allegedly propagated by the man she beat, were used to defeat an admired potential mentor. What’s arresting is the notion that she might be in a position — might have enough swagger and sway — to imagine doing something in response. That long-powerful men like Crowley might deploy a vengeful fuck-you isn’t a shocking notion … but what if newly powerful women could conceive of doing the same?

It’s this very possibility that’s exhilarating for some, chilling for others: that women, and in this case, progressive women of color, newly elected in historic numbers, might team up in defense of one another, come to each other’s aid, exact political revenge on those who would vanquish their allies in ways they have never been capable of before. Because it’s not that women in the past haven’t had the will or desire to respond to the affront of having been stepped over by powerful men; it’s that they have not had the numbers, the voice, or the chutzpah that comes with those things, until very, very recently. What’s scary to so many about Ocasio-Cortez is that she’s acting like a politician with power.

And apparently, that provokes an almost primal fear. Like The Power, like the #MeToo movement, like the rising activism of women around the country in the years since Donald Trump’s victory, Tuesday’s story elicited a kind of shiver down the spine. We live in a world in which some people are used to being able to ascend without obstacle, without recrimination, without challenge: What if, suddenly, that changed? What if men were taken to task for sidelining or kneecapping women on their way to greater power? What if there was a price to be paid?

There’s zero evidence that a challenge to Jeffries will become a reality, much less that it’s a top priority for Ocasio-Cortez, who has disavowed the story, and whose hands are very full with being the Democratic party’s fastest-rising star and pushing her party to get behind a Green New Deal, and who — not for nothing — would indeed take an enormous risk in going after one of the party’s favorite sons.

But there was something downright electrifying about seeing how uncomfortable it made so many people to even imagine a young politician testing out her power in this way — the giddy, exhilarating thrill of watching those sparks fly.

The Imagined Threat of a Woman Who Governs Like a Man