I bought my first suit during my second semester of law school. I needed it to wear to an oral argument I had to make before three judges at the Intermediate Court of Appeals for my Appellate Advocacy class. So I waited for my next paycheck and I went to Ann Taylor for the first time in my life. I was only going to be able to buy one suit, and since our Dean told us that for job interviews, women should buy a skirt-suit and go with classic colors like black and gray, I did just that. I found a beautiful black skirt-suit set. I loved it and I looked amazing in it. I felt powerful and confident. I bought some sheer black nylons and black heels with a pointed toe, as well as a pearl necklace and earrings set (fake, I think? I don’t know a lot about pearls, but I bought the set at Ross). My Dean said that pearls were “so classic, so traditional.” I spent around $250 for everything, which was a lot for a single mother putting herself through law school, but I felt like a million bucks in that outfit and I knew I’d use these classic pieces for many years to come.
I thought about my 25-year-old self in my first suit when I saw photos of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her first day of orientation as a new Congresswoman. She looked professional, elegant, and confident. I noticed that her hair was pulled back in a bun and I remembered my regret over wearing my hair down to give my oral argument before those judges. I always thought maybe things would have gone differently if my blonde hair hadn’t been on display like that.
I’d never worked so hard on a class as I did for Appellate Advocacy. Our grade would be determined by the quality of a brief we wrote in support of our client and by the quality of our oral argument. I was paired up with my brilliant friend Erika—she was the prosecutor and I was the defense attorney. I did not do well on the first draft of my brief. Law school writing is hard to get used to if you have a background of journalism and creative writing. I mean, it’s probably hard regardless of your background. But once you submit to the structure of legal writing and stop trying to be special about it, it becomes easy. Erika, a former editor, helped me to figure that out, and I successfully improved my brief. Together, we practiced our oral arguments multiple times, in front of multiple people.
On the day of the oral argument, I felt prepared. I felt confident. I had done the work, I was ready, and I looked professional and polished.
I don’t remember anything about being in that courtroom, except that at the end of our arguments, one of the male judges told me that I sounded like a valley girl, and then I tried unsuccessfully not to cry. I was prepared for any question about the case, but I was not prepared for that. It was incredibly painful to work so hard and to be so proud of myself, only to have my intelligence and preparation reduced to being a particular type of woman that is apparently not worthy of respect. I wish I could tell you that I had some quick comeback and that I put him in his place and left with dignity, but nope—I stood there unable to speak while my tears betrayed me by falling down my cheeks. The other judges and the professor stood up for me, but I was unable to stand up for myself. I just felt completely diminished while they scolded him and assured me that I didn’t deserve that and that no one would blame me if I wanted to throw something at him.
It was one of those situations where, after the moment had passed, I came up with all of the best retorts. And talking about it with friends and family afterward, I heard a lot of, “You should have said…” And lots of advice about how I shouldn’t take it personally and how that kind of stuff happens all the time to women. I didn’t feel like it was something that happens to women. I felt like it was something that always happens to me in particular. My mom said that women with blonde hair have to wear their hair back in a bun to be taken seriously. So that’s what I did from then on.
When I saw that a conservative commentator had tweeted about Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s suit and called into question whether she actually struggled with money if she could buy it, I remembered my own first suit: how I had to spend half my paycheck to buy it; how great I felt in it; and how ultimately, I was judged by a man in trivial, misogynistic ways, despite the fact that I sacrificed a great deal to present myself and my school in a professional manner.
It’s sexism, it’s classism, and in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s case, it’s also laced with this cherished racist trope that minorities are dishonest money-grubbers. It’s the Welfare Queen myth, resurrected: She’s not really poor, she’s just scamming you.
I’m a person who has struggled not to fall prey to narratives about Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. Just the other day, I bought into a Republican narrative perpetuated by the media about Rep. Ocasio-Cortez meeting with activists demanding action on climate change. The narrative was that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was leading a protest against Rep. Nancy Pelosi. It turned out to not be the truth.
I want to be very careful about letting misogynistic cultural influences color my views of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez or any woman in power. It creates a political climate where women are deterred from seeking power because of the fear of not being taken seriously or treated fairly. I know how much sexism affected me from a young age, and at age 40, I’m still unraveling it all while continuing to deal with sexism and misogyny every day. If I can fall for it, so can you. Examine the narratives you are hearing about women in power. Never stop examining.
I earned an A in my Appellate Advocacy class by working harder than I’d ever worked in a class before, despite the misogyny and financial hardships I endured. I hope that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez will work harder than she’s ever worked before to earn an A from her constituents, despite the multi-faceted attacks she faces. And let’s stand up for her, and for all women, who face misogynistic attacks.