Final Word on the Midterms: Sexism Still Prevalent

November 30, 2010

Midterm elections month draws to a close today, but the way women politicians and candidates are belittled and objectified remains an unresolved problem. Leading up to the elections, women across party lines were attacked for actions and characteristics that were irrelevant to their legislative abilities.

An anonymous blogger publicized details of an alleged Halloween tryst with tea party Senate candidate from Delaware Christine O’Donnell, and old private photos of Virginia’s U.S. House candidate Krystal Ball and her ex-husband posing with sex toys surfaced and quickly traveled the globe. But this phenomenon isn’t new. As a presidential candidate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced irrelevant critiques ranging from her taste in stern pantsuits to her soft displays of emotion. Press like this may make for excellent gossip fodder but has nothing to do with an individual’s worthiness as a candidate. This kind of coverage punishes women for stepping outside the roles usually reserved for them in the political sphere — supportive, decorative wives to male politicians — and labels them deviants for being sexual, unfashionable, or too emotional (or too emotionless).

Reporting and publicizing such stories borders on public sexual harassment. Like other forms of sexual harassment, it hurts not only the individual victims but all women. Irrelevant personal attacks form a barrier to women who are considering political life by showing the abuse women will face if they run for office.

Some tenacious women summon the strength to stand up to this blatant misogyny. Ball told her story to the world and refused to be shamed into submission. In response to the photo furor she wrote, “Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. … We are young women. And we are dedicated to serving this country. And we will run for office. And we will win.” She confronted the attacks against her and kept going, becoming an inspiration to women everywhere.

Women’s organizations are also standing up to this type of coverage. The innovative Name It. Change It. campaign was launched earlier this year to begin holding media outlets accountable for sexist reporting about women leaders and candidates. In addition to exposing and documenting the problem, the campaign also conducted research that found that sexist portrayals hurt female candidates more significantly than policy attacks and that women do their candidacies no favors by ignoring attacks; they are better off facing the sexism head-on.

This isn’t just a battle for a few brave women; it’s one we all must wage. AAUW’s Elect Her initiative acknowledges the challenges to entering the political arena and the necessity of encouraging more women to enter the ring to diminish the long-standing political leadership gender gap. Join the fight by getting involved with the Elect Her initiative, running for office yourself, and reporting sexist coverage of women politicians and candidates when you see it.

This blog post was written by Public Policy Fellow Emily Pfefer.

By:   |   November 30, 2010

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