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Women in Politics - Sexist Media, Sexist Attacks Hurt Women in Politics

Candidate Devastated by Over the Top Sexism in Mayoral & Congressional Campaigns

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Women in Politics - Sexist Media, Sexist Attacks Hurt Women in Politics

Women's Campaign Forum Foundation CEO Sam Bennett

© Photo courtesy WCF
Updated September 30, 2010
Women in politics have long endured sexist remarks and the kind of comments about appearance, wardrobe and personality that are rarely made about male politicians. But for many years, the prevailing school of thought recommended that female candidates not deign to acknowledge this kind of gender-based slander or engage in any discussion that referenced it.

However, a recent study commissioned in part by the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation shows that sexist attacks and sexist media coverage seriously hurt women in politics. The study found that in order to mitigate the damage and regain lost ground, female candidates must respond swiftly and strongly to such attacks by identifying them as inappropriate and damaging to all women.

What happens to female candidates who ignore sexist attacks and attempt to rise above this sort of behavior? Sam Bennett, CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation, admits, "I never understood the toxic level of sexism in our society until I experienced it firsthand." Her story, told below, led her to conclude that "Politics remains one of the most rampant breeding grounds for misogyny."

The Mayor's Measurements

When she ran for mayor of Allentown, PA in 2001, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett was already well-known in her hometown. A former PTA president, she was a pillar of the community, having founded, led, or served on the boards of various civic organizations.

So she was completely taken aback by what happened during her first stump speech as a mayoral candidate.

Standing before a room full of men, she began to deliver her remarks when the chair of the meeting interrupted her with a totally bizarre and inappropriate request: "Sam, I want to ask a question all the men in this room have been dying to ask you: Just what are your measurements?"

As Bennett wrote in the Huffington Post:

I was in disbelief. And if this wasn't bad enough, a reporter who witnessed this unabashed display of sexism wrote an article about that stump speech--and didn't even mention the incident.

Unfortunately, that experience was only a hint of what would come my way....

The Opposition's Vehemence

What came her way when she ran for Congress in 2008 was far worse. Bennett was facing a possible challenger in Pennsylvania State Senator Lisa Boscola, and Boscola's chief of staff, Bernie Kieklak, was well known in political circles for posting no-holds-barred commentary in local blogs. The remarks he let fly about Bennett at one online site are indicative of the level of sexism and misogyny many women candidates face.

To convey the intensity of Kieklak's over-the-top sexism regarding Bennett and his extreme vulgarity, his comments are reproduced in their entirety below with minimal censorship:

Sammy Bennett is a phony political whore who gives good head and makes cheap, blatant political opportunists look like Mother F***ing Teresa. Even her pussy is made of plastic.

The Candidate's Advisement

Bennett was floored by the nastiness but reasoned to herself that it was just one opinion on one blog. If she made a fuss, it would only draw attention to something she believed very few people would ever come across. Realistically speaking, how many voters were going to see it? That was her first mistake:
Disbelief doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. But at least, I thought, it's just a comment on a blog.

And it was-- until my local paper, the Morning Call, decided to print the quote on their front page. And not just once. They ran it day after day after day, with a big picture of me right next to it....

I was stunned and angry by this hostile and sexist attack. I wanted to fight back; I wanted to sue the paper. But I was advised by my attorney [not to]... My top tier national political consultants insisted that I not criticize the paper, because they would have to cover me again later in my campaign.

Next page: "One of my biggest life mistakes"

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