Why Can’t Women Swear?

by Ashley Austrew

It’s not every day you hear the F-word at a congressional event …

But in January 2019, at an event celebrating progressive women in congress, that’s exactly what happened. Rashida Tlaib, the country’s first Palestinian-American congresswoman, told a story about what her congressional win meant to her son. She told the crowd, “…when your son looks at you and says: ‘Momma, look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t.’ Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherf*cker.”

Tlaib’s word choice lit up social media almost immediately. Many applauded her boldness and agreed with her. Even celebrities shouted praise, like Samuel L. Jackson, who tweeted, “Calling that Muthaf*kkah a Motherf*cker is not an issue, calling that Muthaffuqah President is [sic].”

But many others did not share that point of view … they were pissed.

Across party lines, people spoke out against Tlaib. On
Fox News
, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) called Tlaib’s use of the swear word “disgusting” and “deplorable.” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told
CNN
, “I don’t really like that kind of language.” Matthew Dowd, a former campaign strategist for Dick Cheney, wrote an op-ed asserting that Tlaib had lowered the bar for public discourse. Trump himself called Tlaib’s remarks “disgraceful.” At a news conference, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-C.A.) asked, “Is this the behavior that we are going to find with this new majority party in Congress?”

And therein lies the possible reason that Tlaib’s words caused such an outcry.

Are people really offended by swearing?

It’s not that Americans are so scandalized by profanity. A 2016 poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that one in four US adults
uses the F-word daily
, and the number of people who use the word several times per day has doubled in the past decade.

One could argue that it’s the idea of respected politicians swearing that turns so many people off, but when has that ever been reality? 

In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney famously told Senator Pat Leahy, on the Senate floor, to go f*ck himself. Cheney later recounted how many people enjoyed that moment and referred to it as “sort of the best thing I ever did.” In 2011, CNN published a list celebrating the Top 16 Foul-Mouthed Politicians, which consisted of 16 men swearing while in office and an honorable mention to Hillary Clinton’s rumored use of the F-word in private. In 2014, The Hill published an ode to former House minority leader John Boehner’s “best swears.”

And let’s not forget how much President Trump loves a good cuss word. Before he was elected, Trump was heard talking about grabbing women “by the p*ssy” and planned to “bomb the sh*t out of ISIS.” As president, he’s said immigrants come to the US from “sh*thole countries” and called Chinese leaders “motherf*ckers” in a tirade about trade.

While these incidents sparked backlash, particularly because Trump’s swearing is often used to punctuate overtly racist and sexist rhetoric, he’s also been praised for being a “truth-teller.” In 2016,
Time
ran a piece entitled “Why Donald Trump Is Smart To Swear” that praised his foul mouth because “people who swear are more likely to be believed.” The same piece noted that Bernie Sanders occasionally swears and it “identifies him as a ‘man of the people.’”

Double standards strike again …

To its credit, that Time piece also recognized a double standard that exists when it comes to swearing. Hillary Clinton, the author noted, could never swear on the campaign trail because “the rules about what constitutes appropriate language are stricter for women.” Senator Brian Schatz (D-H.I.) took a humorous approach to pointing out this very disparity in his own response to the Tlaib controversy:

While swearing might make prominent males into “men of the people,” it rarely does the same for women.

In 2015, Mike Huckabee asserted that women who swear, particularly in professional spaces, are “trashy.”

In 2016, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said during a speech, “Has he [Trump] kept his promises? F*ck no. If we are not helping people, we should go the f*ck home.” For this, she was
called “unhinged”
by ultra-conservative media. 

At last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf was raked over the coals after she peppered her roast with sexual references and profanity. She spent the next several weeks being asked to defend herself, despite the fact that some of her jokes were based on comments made by the president himself.

It seems many don’t have a problem with swearing or even with politicians swearing; they have a problem with women—particularly women in power—making use of strong language. Feminist writer Mona Eltahawy summed it up succinctly when she wrote that, as a Muslim woman, she swears specifically because she “isn’t supposed to.” She does it to “make the patriarchy uncomfortable.” And that’s likely what Tlaib did, too. In response to criticism, she told the press she is sorry for causing a distraction but not for what she said.

Congress: It is a-changing …

Tlaib’s use of profanity gets special attention because she is a part of a special congressional class. Forty-two members of the 2019 congress are women and 24 of them are people of color. Many of them are also younger than the average congressperson, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is 29, or Ilhan Omar, who is 37.

The newest congressional class seems poised to speak for
all
Americans, swearing and all, and that’s proving to be an unsettling prospect to many older, white, and mostly male Americans who have traditionally functioned under the belief that they would always have the loudest voices in the room.


Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.

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