Clearly it’s time to revisit The Hello Ladies Guide to Sexism in Politics. In recent weeks:
- Reporters at the Chicago Sun Times, in reporting a story about whether or not Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan would run for governor, wrote, “Madigan and her husband, Pat Byrnes, have two young children, ages 7 and 4. She was asked whether she could serve as governor and still raise her kids the way she wants to.”
- Eric Golub, a writer for the Washington Times Communitites section wrote following the Democratic National Convention, “Sandra Fluke and Elizabeth Warren gave shrill, angry, hysterical speeches that validate every negative stereotype about women. They began their speeches enraged and ended somewhere between conniption and apoplectic.”
- Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh referencing one of Senator Scott Brown’s campaign ads said, “ He spent a couple million dollars folding towels on TV to prove he’s an honorary girl.”
Overt sexism: In this category we have the outrageous remarks that make you scream, “How does this person (insert name of person who spoke or wrote the sexist comment) keep their job?!” Examples: Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter’s recent tweet that read, “There’s nothing wrong with Michele Bachmann that two solid weeks of orgasms won’t cure.” Statements like that one attempt to reduce a female candidate to a shrew, a sexual object, anything but a viable contender for the job. An Alex Beam column in The Boston Globe during the Massachusetts Senate race last year qualified because it shifted the focus, even if only briefly, from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s front-runner status to her looks. And, of course, the web ad depicting Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn as a pole dancer was one of the most offensive displays of sexism in politics we’ve seen.
Subtle sexism: This is the kind of sexism that doesn’t necessarily jump off the page but still reveals and perpetuates entrenched attitudes that women don’t belong in Washington. Examples: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writing, “I can think of no reason why anyone who, for some unaccountable reason, supports Michele Bachmann will not move over to Perry… Perry, who actually looks like a president … will raise far more money and breeze by her.” Because presidents, ladies, don’t look like us. They look like white guys. And to be clear, political leaders don’t care about frivolous things like makeup and jewelry either. That was the message in an attack ad against North Carolina Senate candidate Margaret Dickson. Because after all, women who wear lipstick might gasp or cough when a terrorist is killed. Yes, the analysis of Secretary of State Clinton in the situation room during the Osama Bin Laden raid was sexist. And the other things legislators are not: mothers, or, women with no children. Sarah Palin had too many kids and Tampa mayoral candidate Rosa Ferlita didn’t have enough. An attack ad against her implied she was unfit for office unlike her opponent, “a family man.”
Blink-and-you-might-miss-it sexism: From a very young age, we’ve been conditioned by the media to view women a certain way. Think Barbie with her physically impossible figure, models airbrushed into Everyman’s fantasy, Wilma Flinstone – tough but obedient, and Daphne and Velma – pretty or smart but never both. So we don’t always immediately see sexism for what it is because the images served up of female politicians follow the same formula we’ve always seen when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media. Examples: Fox News correspondent Greta Van Susteren asking then Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin if she had breast implants – not relevant to U.S. policy but a topic we’re used to having about women in the news. Another example was Rep. Allen West telling Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz she’s “not a lady.” Because a well-behaved lady doesn’t challenge a man (but we do, don’t we ladies?). And then there’s the use of our least-favorite phrase “Man Up.” Because it’s men who win wars, fix economies and create jobs. Clearly.
Why it Matters: Sexism hurts. A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners revealed that “even mild sexist language has an impact on voters’ likelihood to vote for a female candidate and on how favorable they feel toward a woman seeking office.” The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization whose mission is to establish representative democracy across the globe, sees gender parity as the path to democracy stating, “The concept of democracy will only assume true and dynamic significance when political policies and national legislation are decided upon jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population.” But here in the U.S. women hold barely 17 percent of the seats in Congress, despite making up half the population.
What We Can Do About It: We can start by calling out sexism when we see it. Organizations like Name It Change It allow people to report sexist coverage and then call on the media outlets to change behavior. We can tell advertisers and sponsors we don’t like it, that we notice where they spend advertising dollars and that we too must think about how we spend our money.
And we can work to shift the political landscape. We can contribute to and volunteer on women’s campaigns. It takes a lot of money and people to get someone elected. We can vote for women. I often quote Gloria Feldt who says, “… when there are two candidates–one male and one female–who are both well-qualified and represent my positions on major issues I care about, I will support the woman until such time as women have our fair 50 percent share of the elected official slots. Then and only then will gender not matter.” And we can run for office. Organizations like She Should Run, The White House Project, The 2012 Project and Ready to Run offer support and coaching for women seeking office.
And eventually, we too will look like a president.