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The Politics of Media Sexism and Sexist Attacks - Why Women Candidates are Now Fighting Back

By September 30, 2010

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Politicians and voters say they don't like it, but attack ads and negative campaigning are part of the political landscape. And although they seem to work, they also discourage a fair number of voters who are disenchanted with 'politics as usual' and stay home from the polls. We don't like it, but we accept it.

But when attack ads, negative campaigning, and media coverage target a candidate's gender instead of the issues, none of us should just accept it. We need to name it for what it is and work to change it by demanding accountability for sexist remarks.

For many years, women in politics who've been slandered in this way have been advised, "Just ignore it. Just turn the other cheek." A new study, however, reveals that silence isn't golden -- it's damning to a female candidate's reputation. And if she doesn't respond to sexist attacks from her opponent or in the media, she risks losing support and votes.

The study, conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners, confirms what we've long suspected -- sexism hurts women in politics. But it also reveals that women can regain lost ground by swiftly and forcefully addressing sexism when it comes up and emphasizing that it's inappropriate, detracts from the issues, distracts voters and prevents us from moving forward.

The story of how the study came to be is as fascinating as its findings. One woman who heads up a group that spearheaded the project was a victim of extreme sexism during two separate runs for public office. Years later, she's still smarting from the experience. What she endured may have derailed her political ambitions, but it turned her into a vocal advocate for change.

Both Sam Bennett's mayoral bid and Congressional run are a cautionary tale for any woman thinking about running for public office. Although hers may be a worst case scenario, if it could happen in a small town in Pennsylvania, it could happen anywhere.

If and when it does, are you ready to speak up? As Sam notes, when it happened to her, "no one said a word."

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October 6, 2010 at 1:49 am
(1) nannaof2 says:

Interesting article. Where was the condemnation when Sarah Palin was being attacked and bashed in the most vile ways, especially by the misogynist, David Letterman ? I am still livid over the way she was treated. NOW’s silence was deafening! Shame, Shame, Shame on THOSE women that sat back and said nothing. I will never forget !

October 6, 2010 at 2:09 am
(2) womensissues says:

nannaof2, I’ve written extensively on the media attacks Sarah Palin has endured, and my article “Sarah Palin, Girl Candidate: Restricted Access Feeds Gender Bias in Coverage” was honored with an EMMA (Exceptional Merit in Media Award) from the National Women’s Political Caucus: http://womensissues.about.com/od/sarahpalin/a/SarahPalinGirl.htm

So please wag your finger at someone else. If you were a regular reader of this blog, you’d see how much time I’ve devoted to highlighting Palin’s battles with sexist coverage, right from the beginning: http://womensissues.about.com/b/2008/08/30/enough-with-the-beauty-queen-already-theres-more-to-sarah-palin.htm

Why do so many women have issues with Palin? Because she isn’t about opening the door wider for all women. She’s simply interested in opening the door wider for herself. And that makes many who do fight for women’s rights without selfish motivations very, very unhappy. They feel she’s a Johnny-come-lately, and I agree.

I personally find conservative columnist Kathleen Parker a brilliant observer of all things Palin, and her thoughts around the time of the Letterman brouhaha are worth reading:


Don’t look to NOW as the be-all, end-all of the women’s movement. The Women’s Media Center has frequently defended Palin, and Christine O’Donnell and others from sexist attacks, while still keeping their focus on a progressive-minded agenda.

There are many women’s groups that have stepped forward on behalf of Palin, and many are liberal. I don’t see a whole lot of conservative groups stepping up to the plate in return for Democratic women who are slandered. Both sides should speak up against gender bias. That’s one thing we cannot afford to be partisan about.

October 6, 2010 at 3:22 am
(3) Sharon says:

You are correct, I am not a frequent reader of this column. No “finger wagging” here, simply an observation. Actually, I and many others, disagree with your accusations that Sarah Palin “. . . isn’t about opening the door wider for all woman.” I respect what Sarah Palin stands for. Besides the fact that she has been a major player in the political arena, I respect that she has filled many difficult roles, including that of being front and center in supporting her pregnant daughter and her daughter’s unborn child. Sarah Palin is courageous to have stood before such mean spirited opposition, holding her downs syndrome baby and endure the vicious assults that she endured. I would say that Sarah Palin offers up a “wider,” MUCH WIDER DOOR, than any door you are familiar with . Thank you very much.

October 6, 2010 at 8:43 am
(4) Judysyracuse says:

Sorry that Sharon/nannaof2 finds it necessary to SCREAM AT THE AUTHOR in caps. I have no respect for Ms. Palin, and find her focused on what she can get for herself. “Holding her Downs syndrome baby” etc was all done for show, sadly. Many of us have issues just as challenging as those Ms. Palin chooses to parade around – we just don’t choose to blab about them in public. And I see her providing nothing of substance for American women. Nothing.

October 6, 2010 at 1:47 pm
(5) nannaof2 says:

“Parade around”? Judy Syracuse, do you believe she should have hidden her baby? I think you dislike all that Sarah Palin represents. Had she been exactly as she is, minus the downs syndrom baby (because they just shouldn’t be) and minus the pregnant teenage daughter, AND more importantly, pro abortion – she would have been your definition of a “powerful” competent woman. You can’t have it both ways.

October 7, 2010 at 1:01 am
(6) Chris says:

It’s no secret I’m a staunch conservative who reads this blog regularly and comments more than I probably should! Despite disagreeing from time to time, I think Linda’s record for defending ALL women from sexist attacks speaks for itself. It does no good to blindly attack fair minded people. It is exactly the sort of thing that makes people on both sides throw up their hands and decide it’s useless to be reasonable and fair. It also shows a certain amount of class to apologize when you’re clearly in the wrong.

October 7, 2010 at 1:08 am
(7) nannaof2 says:

I can agree to disagree with the charge that was made about Sarah Palin being “about herself” . . . and the whole “opening the door wider.” I simply disagree with that statement. Period.

October 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm
(8) womensissues says:

Chris — you a staunch conservative? I had no idea! ; )

Here’s the thing. No woman, no matter what her personal beliefs, should be attacked solely on gender. As much as I don’t care for her politics, Sarah Palin is quite remarkable in that she has stood her ground and used the negative sexist remarks against her to skewer her naysayers.

She is the first example of a truly attractive and appealing candidate running at the national level who has not been afraid to embrace her obvious femininity and be a little sexy and flirty with her audiences. For those old school feminists who have struggled to promote themselves as competent and smart first, and attractive second (or third or fourth), this type of approach runs counter to everything we’ve been raised to believe.

Is this working? It seems to. She represents a new type of candidacy in a media age that uses news as entertainment.

The problems she’s face in doing so are significant. I wrote about Newsweek’s terrible treatment of her using photos shot for Runner’s World. In the context of a running magazine, they were fine. In the context of Newsweek, really reprehensible:

nannaof2, Palin’s simply not suited for higher office based on several past indicators. Earnings one’s stripes is an essential part of the equation and Palin’s track record is not remarkable. I don’t give her a pass for gender, but I’ll defend her against anyone who smears her because she’s a woman.

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