Gender Equality: Female Role Models as Actors of Change The Case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In her 2013 TED-Ed educational video on how inspirational some American historical role models can be, Bissetta highlights two observations that are still and maybe even more relevant today. First, she discusses how role models usually present a same set of virtues forming their strong character, including bravery and wisdom, leading them on their way to success. She goes on saying that the demonstration of those qualities can be a source of inspiration, helping people to “live better” (2013, Bissetta). However, most of the historical figures she mentions are males such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, except from one female hero, Sybil Ludington. One could not deny the clarity of the lesson, which will actually be at the center of the present reflection: while virtuous and powerful both male and female role models are necessary, more female inspiring figures should be put in the spotlight. One of the most recent and famous role models striving to reverse this trend is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, better known as AOC, the U.S. Representative for 14th congressional district of New York. Since she entered the Congress in January 2019, her name has been on everyone’s lips, especially when it comes to her popularity among and influence on young women and girls: “AOC Is A Role Model For Young Women Because Of Her Femininity, NOT Despite It” (Nair, 2020); “The visual power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” (2019, Shaw). Even a book has been published earlier this year on her rise to power (2020, Fredrickson, The AOC Way: The Secrets of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Success). Her influential participation in politics is undeniable in the same way as her fierce campaign against climate change has been catapulted into most of the newspapers’ headlines. However, one might wonder what positive impact in the fight for gender equality this young powerful female politician can have. More specifically, how can she contribute to challenging gender stereotypes and symbolism at the basis of the gender inequalities still persisting in our societies? In other terms, how role models such as AOC can help deconstruct the current unequal gender patterns and reconstruct a more positive and equal gender symbolism, a key factor on the road towards a fairer and more equitable world? In order to answer those questions, the present paper will be divided into two parts. The first one will consist of a theoretical background on role models and why their influence is crucial to empower girls and women, and thus to advance on the way forward for gender equality. In the second part, the case of AOC will be examined in depth, emphasizing on how she acts as a powerful role model for women and girls. 

Before going to the heart of the topic, it is worth clarifying some important notions above-mentioned. First, when it comes to role models, they can be defined as charismatic figures whose actions, behaviours and ideas are considered by other people to be inspiring and exemplary. “[The attachment might] not necessarily involve direct personal contact […]” (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2020, para. 1). Indeed, people might look up to celebrities or just members of their networks. Secondly, the concept of gender symbolism should be placed in its context for a better understanding. In short, the gender symbolism is one of the three corners of the Gender Triangle, a theory developed by Cordula Reimann. It consists of the stereotypes and norms encompassing the definitions of masculinity/ies and feminity/ies in a given society. The other corners concern the individual gender identity and the gender structure, which is related to the asymmetric power relations governing patriarchal societies (2020, Reimann).

As stated in the first paragraph, this first part aims at demonstrating how role models are essential to empower women and girls, and thus challenge current gender stereotypes and advance on the path towards gender equality. First, according to Gammage, the associate editor of Feminist Economics, and Dunnin, empowering girls and young women is crucial to achieve gender equality (2018), one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, UNWomen states: “Women’s equality and empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but also integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. In short, all the SDGs depend on the achievement of Goal 5.” (2020, UNWomen, para.1) More specifically, the UN Women’s the Youth and Gender Equality Strategy aims to empower young women and men through the implementation of three pillars, including leadership and economic empowerment. (2017, UNWomen) In the same line, in 2017, the 6th Economic and Social Council Youth Forum was dedicated to “The role of Youth in eradicating poverty in a changing world”, reiterating the “the critical importance of empowering young women and girls today for a truly transformative future.” (2017, 6th Economic and Social Council Youth Forum, para. 2)

Keeping in mind that achieving gender equality requires, among other things, societies to empower women and girls, one might wonder how to actually give them the tools to speak up, take initiatives, endorsing leadership positions, develop new skills, for instance. A 2012-study conducted by scientists from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and the Tilburg Universit in the Netherlands, entitled “Successful female leaders empower women’s behavior in leadership tasks”, may help clarify the question (2012, Latu & Mast). The experts examined how, while giving a speech, women reacted to being exposed to a picture of a powerful leader such as Angela Merkel or Bill Clinton. They observed greater quality in women’s speech and a highest likelihood to give themselves a better self-evaluation when they were presented to female role models as leaders. The positive influence of female role models on women appears very clearly here. In the same vein, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research conducted in 2012, co-authored by Esther Duflo, who seven years later received the Nobel Prize in Economics, and entitled “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India”, demonstrates similar results. Indeed, the experts found out that women in political leadership positions benefiting from gender quotas in the Indian State of West Bengal have a positive impact on adolescent girls’ career and education prospects, acting as role models. Following the publication of this study, Pereira wrote in Forbes that the results were revelatory of the need to implement more gender quotas to “speed up change and stoke the ambitions of the next generation, making the unlikely finally seem possible.” (2012, Pereira, last paragraph) In brief, based on both studies, it can be easily reiterated that one of the ways for both girls and women to feel empowered is to have inspiring and powerful female role models to look up to. 

However, powerful female role models can have a positive impact not only in politics, but also in other areas such as sciences. Indeed, a Paris School of Economics 2018-study has revealed that one-hour exposure to female role models with a background in science can have a considerable positive effect on both male and female students’enrollement in STEM studies (2018, Breda & Grenet). Similarly, in sports, senior lecturers in physical education from the Canterbury Christ Church argue that more female athlete role models are needed to “inspire the next generation” (2018, Earl, title), underlying their positive impact on girls’ involvement in sport.

The second part of the present paper focuses on the case of the role model Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman to have obtained a seat in the Congress in 2018 at the age of 29, and the ways in which she plays a significant role in empowering both girls are women, and thus challenging the status quo in terms of gender symbolism. 

First of all, it is worth mentioning that 2018 can be considered as “The Year of the Woman”, as suggested by Emma Lewis, a political science senior at Muhlenberg College. Indeed, it was marked by the famous #MeToo movement and by an increasing number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives (2018, Lewis) with more and more female candidates of color who link both global and local issues while campaigning (2020, Global Fund for Women, point 10).

The three main ways in which AOC plays a crucial role in women’s and girls’ empowerment, which will be further developed in the next paragraphs, are based on and have been enhanced by her broad positive coverage in the media as well as her powerful use of social media such as Instagram and Twitter. Indeed, only eight months after her election in November 2018, she gained more than 2.6 million followers on Twitter, building such a popularity that she was requested to give social media classes to her Democrats colleagues. Such success can be explained by her strategical and playful posts. Indeed, according to Benwell, “she doesn’t just respond to news or release statements like most politicians – she creates her own content and makes her own news, in an unpredictable and authentic way” (2019, Benwell, para. 1), without hesitating to openly criticize Republican candidates. The three following points can thus be mainly explained by her extremely well-thought use of social media, making her campaign, her political opinions and her personal life visible to the eyes of the American society. 

The first way in which AOC can empower girls and women is quite straightforward. She does not hide her condition as a woman. On the contrary, she fully embraces it, as discussed by Campbell and Wolbrecht who conducted a survey in 2019 for the Washington Post aimed at studying the perception of democracy by both male and female adolescents during the 2018 midterm election campaign. Indeed, they write: “In 2018, most of the women running were Democrats, many of whom emphasized their status as women while running.” (2019, Campbell & Wolbrecht, para. 9). Furthermore, according to Nair from the Rutgers University, AOC proves young women that they can access high positions of leadership showing their feminine traits (2020, Nair, para. 2), adding that there has often been a common assumption within patriarchal contexts according to which women should behave like their male counterparts to climb the ladder to power. In this way, she empowers women and girls to fully embrace their femininity, to be themselves without having to behave like men to gain respect and status. 

Secondly, apart from being assertive on her gender, AOC, who grew up in a Latino working-class family, plays considerably on her “visual savvy” (2019, Shaw, para. 1) when it comes to affirming out loud her origins, the color of her skin and her professional background. For instance, as Shaw discusses it, after having been taken her portrait for 2019 April cover of the famous magazine Times, she tweeted a powerful post on the importance of the representation of people of color, thanking the photographer for his good work on emphasizing her skin tone. What is more, she very often underlines her background as a member of a minority community as she did in her campaign video, for instance, creating a powerful and significant sense of belonging. Indeed, she states: “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny” (2018, AOC Youtube channel). Her unusual path to politics also makes her story more relatable to women and girls, having been a working-class New Yorker: “I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan” (2018, AOC Youtube channel). Consequently, affirming clearly who she is and where she comes from not only shakes up the American political landscape, but shows women and girls that leadership positions can be hold by any motivated individual, whatever their cultural, economic and social background is. 

Finally, AOC does not hesitate to speak truth to power, clearly positioning herself against the political establishment, long-serving candidates such as Crowley against whom she ran and the unhealthy effects of the excesses capitalism and obviously Donald Trump, her main rival. For instance, in November 2019, she fiercely responded to one his accusations of not being able to complete her legislative agenda because of her party’s obsession with his impeachment saying: “In my first 11 months I’ve cosponsored 339 pieces of legislation, authored 15, took on Big Pharma w/ my colleagues in hearings that brought PreP generic a year early & exposed abuse of power.” (2019, AOC)

Based on the three above-developed points, it can be observed, as Lewis also concluded from a research aimed investigating the impact of the role model effect on women (2018, Lewis), that female politicians such as AOC can act as role models for young girls who later develop a greater tendency to discuss politics, for instance. She also underlines the considerable positive impact AOC has on them, putting forward her “unique nature of candidacy, election, skyrocket to political fame, and subsequent media frenzy” (2018, Lewis, last paragraph), as above-mentioned.

In conclusion, it can be concluded that female role models can have a positive impact on women and girls by empowering them, being engaged in politics, science or sport. More specifically, female charismatic and rule-breaker role models such as AOC can contribute to deconstructing toxic gender stereotypes and symbolism and to reconstructing healthy gender patterns by defying expectations that have long prevented women from speaking up and aspiring to leadership positions, openly affirming their gender as well as their social, economic and cultural background. Another positive point contributing to challenging those gender stereotypes lies in her speaking truth to power, leading her to emerge as a brand-new force in the corridors of politics. 


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About the author:

Clémentine Dupont has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in multidisciplinary translation in French, English and Spanish. After her internship at the French Translation Service of the United Nations where she discovered her passion for human rights and international relations and politics, she went on studying a Specialization Master in Human Rights in Brussels, Belgium. She then decided to travel to Costa Rica and study at the United Nations mandated University for Peace where she pursued a Master in International Peace Studies. Throughout her academic and professional experience, she gave a special attention to gender, women’s rights and migration, leading her to participate to the G20 Interfaith Fellows and Youth Forum, co-organized by KAICIID & UNAoC, where she contributed to formulating policy recommendations on migration. She is actually volunteering for the Brussels-based organization The Urban Woman as a blogger and interning at Forum ZFD, the German Forum Civil Peace Service

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