In the midst of the upheaval of 1968—a tumultuous year marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., intense opposition to the Vietnam War, and the election of President Nixon—a black public school teacher from Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm, offered the nation a way forward. She was the first black woman elected to Congress, launching a 14-year term in which “Fighting Shirley” developed a reputation for challenging the status quo and later ran for president under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.” (“I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” Chisholm once said when asked about her legacy. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”)
Despite the historic nature of her election to Congress, though, she arrived in Washington, DC with little fanfare. Democratic leadership had assigned her to the Agriculture Committee, which was, by Chisholm’s own account, a poor fit for her experience and Congressional ambitions. She was expected to sit quietly and wait patiently for her turn—a “longstanding expectation for new Members,” per the Office of the Historian. Instead, she protested: “All I’m asking for is something more relevant than Agriculture,” she said. Though some in Congress called her protest “political suicide,” leaders conceded and reassigned her to the Education and Labor Committee. Within a week, Chisholm had made history a second time by becoming the first freshman member of Congress to successfully change committees. In a 1969 interview with NBC, she described her biggest challenge: an old, white establishment that stood in the way of progress: “The country is run by a group of men that make up the Southern oligarchy,” she said. “That’s why this country is as it is.”
Fifty years later, the statement still applies. It has been demoralizing to watch dangerously unqualified, extremist nominees like Betsy DeVos and Alex Azar sail into cabinet positions with no opposition or scrutiny from the Republicans who control the hearings. It was stomach-churning, as a recent example, to watch Republicans’ indifference or feigned concern during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford carefully recounted her alleged assault.
But on late Wednesday afternoon, as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform heard the testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, three freshman members of Congress—all progressive women of color—punctured the bubble. The exchanges with Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which came back-to-back, were like a series of punches into a thick, unscalable wall blocking the road to progress; each on its own was significant, but taken collectively, these 15 minutes were a glimpse into the changing tides of the country.
In a photo that went viral, the women invoked the no-nonsense, fighting spirit of Chisholm. Where Chisholm was just one woman pushing against the establishment, however, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib represent a coalition of women elected in 2018 precisely because of their desire to overthrow the old guard. On Wednesday, the women banded together and organized to ask a series of strategic, insightful questions that expanded the investigation into Trump, slyly directed missives at their Republican colleagues, and demanded that their presence be acknowledged.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans—who are now a minority in the House—continued to protect Trump’s interests. Rather than trying to extract relevant information from Cohen’s testimony, they instead focused on discrediting him, relying on questions that reeked of desperation and exposed their bigotry. (One committee member, Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins, even claimed, incredibly, that he didn’t know who Cohen was “until today, really.”)
On Twitter, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (who is not on the committee) appeared to threaten Cohen, writing, “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot....”
The now-deleted tweet was enough to trigger an investigation by the Florida State Bar. One of the most pathetic attempts to discredit Cohen came from North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who challenged Cohen’s assertion that Trump is “racist” by insinuating that he can’t possibly be because Lynne Patton, a black woman and official within the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, supports Trump. Meadows brought Patton to the testimony as his guest. “She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was racist,” he said to Cohen. “How do you reconcile the two of those?”
Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib, then, appeared in succession as a united front. Ocasio-Cortez used her time better than perhaps any other lawmaker on the committee, asking specific questions about how Trump handled his insurance claims and presented his assets, which, now in public record, may enable the committee to subpoena Trump’s elusive financial statements and tax records. While Pressley and Tlaib delved deeper into Cohen’s testimony, they also used their time to deflate the racist theatrics of their senior colleague. “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘shithole countries,’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend and still be racist?” Pressley asked Cohen, clearly referencing Meadow’s comments about Patton. (He responded, “Yes.”)
Tlaib and Pressley could have politely ignored Meadows’s racist comments; their Democratic colleagues certainly did. By choosing not to, however, they signaled to their colleagues, and other Republican men in particular, that they are not going to stay quiet and shut up for the sake of decorum and that racism isn’t an abstract concept; it’s something that affects them—and millions of their constituents—personally. Tlaib was even more explicit than Pressley: “Just because someone has a person of color, a black person, working for them does not mean they aren’t racist,” Tlaib said. She then added that using a black woman as “a prop,” as Meadows did, is “alone racist in itself.”
There’s sadly nothing remarkable about an old white Republican making a racist assumption, even during a Congressional hearing. It was thrilling, however, to watch a young, brown, Muslim-American woman call him out, and amazing to witness Meadows’s simmering realization that he had no power to stop her from doing so. Meadows was trapped. First, he said, condescendingly, “I’m sure she didn’t intend to do this...” though Tlaib had intentionally crafted a statement. He then grew desperate and demanded that her comments about him be struck from Congressional record. “My nieces and nephews are people of color,” he cried. He invoked reverse racism: “It’s racist to suggest that I ask her to come here for that reason.” In the face of Meadows’s implosion, Tlaib was controlled and calm, even occasionally smiling.
In that moment, Tlaib, Congress’s first Palestinian-American, jolted Meadows with the realization that in this forum, they are equals; she has as much power as he does. That’s a terrific threat to any white man who runs on a platform predicated on racism, as Meadows did in 2012 when he suggested that Barack Obama “go home to Kenya or wherever it is,” and as he still does in his support of Donald Trump. Tlaib’s insistence on demanding the acknowledgement of her perspective as “a person of color” poses an existential threat to the old guard that Meadows represents. Though the entire exchange, beginning with Ocasio-Cortez, lasted for no more than 15 minutes, it offered a preview of the direction Congress may be headed: a public forum that has been almost consistently controlled by white men briefly became a space where women of color questioned and interrogated their power, and Tlaib delivered the grand finale.
Chisholm once said, “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.” In Wednesday’s testimony, these three women demonstrated that even in the halls of Congress, which is made up of more than 60 percent white men, they are not interested in keeping quiet for sake of political expediency. The men who stand in their way are afraid. They should be.