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Rep. Pramila Jayapal takes sexist arrows and fights back

The Hill: Rep. Pramila Jayapal takes sexist arrows and fights back

By Cristina Marocs

She’s naive. A “young lady” who “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about.” And she needs to “learn how to read.” 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a freshman Democrat from Washington, has heard all three of these condescending remarks from male GOP colleagues since arriving in Congress — but she hasn’t backed down from any of them.  

Instead, Jayapal has drawn attention for hitting back at the dismissals, which she says reek of sexism and must be confronted. 

“It’s really a culture,” the 52-year-old lawmaker told The Hill in a recent interview.

While she says she’d rather talk policy, Jayapal said it’s “important to call these things out” because “I don’t think we can expect the body to change and more women to run and more folks of color to want to be in these bodies if they have to deal with this all the time.”

Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman ever elected to the House — a body that continues to be dominated by white men.

She suggests the clashes she’s had in her first year in Congress are testament to the fact that women must stand up for themselves to make Capitol Hill’s culture more inclusive.

“I don’t think that people are used to being challenged, even civilly, on some of this sexist language or this diminishing language,” she said.

Jayapal found it jarring when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) accused her of “naiveté” during a House Judiciary Committee markup last week on legislation to create a new agricultural guest worker program.

“I know she’s a new member,” Issa added while criticizing Jayapal’s proposal to reduce the number of guest workers affected by the program.

Jayapal, who later tweeted a video of the exchange to her followers, made a name for herself in her state and nationally after founding an immigrant advocacy nonprofit, called OneAmerica, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

She became the first South Asian-American elected to the Washington state legislature in 2014 and was only woman of color in the state Senate.

“Thank goodness we have so many men in Congress to mansplain our naiveté. Here’s to you, @DarrellIssa,” she wrote in her tweet.

A spokesman for Issa did not return a request for comment.

Sexism is nothing new to Jayapal, but no less frustrating as a result.

“There’s an anger that, you know, I can be a 52-year-old accomplished woman and yet I continue to have to deal with these kinds of things. And I don’t think I’m the only one,” she said.

In September, Rep. Don Young, the veteran Alaska Republican known for his temper, lashed out at Jayapal in strikingly personal terms during House floor debate on his amendment regarding wildlife management on national preserves in his state.

After Jayapal spoke in opposition to his amendment, Young said she “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about” and then addressed her as “young lady.”

At that point, Jayapal coolly interjected and asked that Young withdraw his remarks. He subsequently apologized, saying that he gets “very defensive about my state.”

“A message to women of color out there: stand strong. Refuse to be patronized or minimized. Let the small guys out there be [intimidated] by you,” Jayapal tweeted at the time.

During a House Judiciary Committee meeting in February, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) told Jayapal to “learn how to read” while criticizing her description of the Trump administration’s travel ban as a “Muslim ban.”

“Funny thing to say to an English major!” Jayapal tweeted.

Labrador did not apologize for his comment. A spokesman told McClatchy that Labrador “would never consider treating men and women differently in a debate,” noting that he similarly questioned a male Democratic opponent’s ability to read during a debate last year.

Jayapal thinks the series of incidents are a symptom of the breakdown of civility in American politics. But she suspects that being a woman of color who looks younger than she is has something to do with it, too.

“I think when you can’t attack on the policy, and you know that the policy argument that’s being made is credible, then you try to find some other way to attack the person. And that seems to be their instinct, is attack with personal insults. And I think in those personal insults, what comes through is the underlying sexism, racism, ageism,” Jayapal said.

Echoing former first lady Michelle Obama, Jayapal says it’s key to “fly high” and remain calm when responding to attempts to minimize her standing. She noted that she referred to Issa as a “distinguished gentleman” during her rebuttal in the Judiciary Committee markup because it “is more appropriately reflective of what we should be saying as Congress members.”

“It doesn’t make me feel diminished as they intend to. I’ve been recently thinking that part of it is I don’t think that a lot of these guys know how to deal with an articulate brown woman. Naive is an interesting word to use when I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life on immigration issues.”

Jayapal said she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment like the kind carried out by Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein and others whose behavior has recently been brought to light. But she warns that attitudes that diminish women can foster an environment where men believe they can get away with more aggressive conduct.

“I want to make the clear distinction that that’s not what this is,” Jayapal said of her recent encounters with male colleagues. “But it is a culture of dismissiveness around women that allows for real sexual harassment to flourish and to be acceptable.”

A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Monday found that 48 percent of currently employed women in the U.S. say they have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Fellow female Democrats have been speaking up about sexual harassment since the #MeToo campaign encouraging women to share their stories went viral. 

Two Democratic women, Reps. Jackie Speier (Calif.) and Brenda Lawrence (Mich.), are introducing bills to require sexual harassment training for congressional offices. Such training is mandatory for executive branch employees, but not for Congress.

Speier shared a video last week recounting the sexual harassment she experienced while working as a congressional staffer.

“Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” Speier said. “There is nothing to fear in telling the truth, and it’s time to throw back the curtain on repulsive behavior that until now has thrived in the dark without consequences.” 

 Jayapal acknowledges there are risks to speaking out against sexism in the workplace. But staying silent, she says, won’t make things better.

 “I know there are consequences for women who do this, right? But I think it’s very important that we all refuse to be intimidated.”