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'We Do Not Have to Accept This': Rep. Jayapal Refuses to Be Called 'Young Lady'

During a legislative debate, Rep. Don Young called Rep. Pramila Jayapal a “young lady” who “doesn’t know a damn thing about what she’s talking about.” Jayapal, who is 51, talks to Broadly about shutting down belittling comments from male colleagues.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by Bill Clark via Getty Images

Last night, a Democratic congresswoman disagreed with her Republican colleague over a piece of legislation. But instead of sparring intellectually with Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal and turning to facts and statistics, Alaska Rep. Don Young called her a "young lady" who "doesn't know a damn thing about what she's talking about."

During a House floor debate, Jayapal made statements opposing an amendment Young had proposed to a government spending package regarding wildlife management that would impact Alaska's national preserves. Her comments, however, did not sit well with Young.

Read more: Congresswoman-Elect Pramila Jayapal: This Is No Time to Hide in the Shadows

"I rarely do this but I'm deeply disappointed in my good lady from Washington," the 84-year-old representative said on record. "Doesn't know a damn thing about what she's talking about."

He went on to question the motives behind her statements, addressing the 51-year-old junior representative directly: "What you said a while ago was really nonsense. It was written by an interest group, not yourself. Maybe your staff is affiliated with the Humane Society or some other group. And I'm disappointed."

Young added angrily: "You may not know me young lady, but I'm really disturbed."

Deciding she'd had enough of his scolding, Jayapal, who's the first Indian-American woman in the House of Representatives, interjected—with an incredulous look on her face—and asked the House chairman for Young's comments to be stricken from the record. The Alaska congressman apologized moments later, chalking up his disparaging comments to a tendency of getting "very defensive about my state." In response, Jayapal reminded her colleague, who's been in office since 1973, that she, too, had been elected by the people of her state to represent their best interests.

In a phone interview, Jayapal tells Broadly that she was outraged and amazed by Young's comments: "It was just too much. I really felt that I had to say something. It was just not acceptable, and I was very glad that he came over. I understand from others that it's extremely rare that he apologizes, so the fact that he did and asked that his words be taken down from the record was important."

The congresswoman admits last night's incident wasn't the first time she's dealt with a belittling remark from a Republican congressman. Once, she says, a male colleague told her in judiciary committee that she needed to learn how to read. That's how she knew the proper procedure to challenge an inappropriate comment on the floor.

Jayapal says that she doesn't always call out people when they refer to her as "young lady"—it happens more often than she'd like to admit, she says—but she just couldn't let this instance slide because "it was clearly derisive. It was clearly dismissing my intellect, which he had done already by saying 'you don't know a damn thing about what you're talking about.'"

"Some male colleagues may think that it's a compliment to say that somebody's a young lady, but it's not. There are lots of ways to compliment women of intelligence and substance, and calling them young lady is not one of them."

"For people who use that phrase," she continues, "I think what they have to understand is, even when it's said with affection, the reality is that it is dismissive. Some male colleagues may think that it's a compliment to say that somebody's a young lady, but it's not. There are lots of ways to compliment women of intelligence and substance, and calling them young lady is not one of them."

"We have a job to do here, we want to be respected for who we are, and Don Young may have just said some of the things that some people think but don't say. I think it's important that we challenge that graciously, always from the high ground. But we do not have to accept that that's the way it is just because it always has been that way."