Sexism & Politics — Where Do We Go From Here?

Mon, May 19, 2008

Moms & Politics


I’ve been perplexed and saddened at the media’s apparent disinterest in the gender issue in this campaign.

So many journalists and pundits have turned a laser focus on the issue of race, but, as Marie Cocco pointed out in her Washington Post piece last week, even the Democratic party isn’t doing a lot to help the first “viable woman candidate for President” put an end to the seemingly endless stream of sexist comments about Hillary Clinton.

Many loud voices continue to claim there IS no gender problem in America — look at all the women in law school and medical school! See, there are women in every profession — you’ve come a long way, baby, so we don’t have to worry anymore. Yup, check that one off the list. No one is trying to suggest that a woman can’t be President. That notion is just a confused one in your pretty little heads!

But as Hillary’s voice gets quieter in this campaign, I’m wondering where we, as political women, go from here? Three articles in New York Times in two days have raised the question. But what’s the solution?

I’m still working on that one, but one thing occurred to me this morning as I was reading these articles that might be important in getting to the answer:

Men are takers, women are askers.

If Hillary Clinton was, as Barack Obama is apparently going to do regardless of vote and delegate count this week, proclaim himself the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination, there would be an uproar of incredible proportions. We’d hear plenty of, “Who does she think she is? What gives her the right to just march up there and ignore the rules?”

Yet, few seem to have a problem with Obama doing that. And I’m sure we won’t hear much criticism of the fact that he has no problem taking something that isn’t his quite yet. Granted, it’s likely that will be the ultimate outcome, but few seem bothered by the fact that he’s not playing by the rules. When a women steps outside the rules of a game, she’s slapped downmen just get slapped on the wrist.

When I was still a naive junior associate in a large law firm, I learned that lesson the hard way more than I’d like to remember. The guys would march into senior lawyers’ offices, plop themselves down in a chair and start chatting, until they got assigned to the juiciest cases. Us gals? We generally knocked first, and got told to come back in things weren’t so busy.

We’re never going to convince men that they should be more polite in how they achieve their goals, so women are going to have to adjust their approach and take a lesson from the “takers.”

Clinton may be the imperfect example to illustrate how much further we all have to go in having more of a role in all aspects of politics and life in general, and how we can achieve that, but that doesn’t make what has happened to her less true. We still face accepted sexist attitudes and comments every day, like one reporter did recently did when Barack Obama referred dismissively to her as “sweetie.”

Let’s put our heads together and figure out how we start today to keep the next “viable woman candidate for President” going through the same treatment as Hillary Clinton.

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26 Responses to “Sexism & Politics — Where Do We Go From Here?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I am not sure it is sexism that is causing so many people to want clinton to step aside — it is the burning desire to make sure there isn’t four more years of Bush policies under McCain. We need to start focusing on the general election now. I was a Clinton supporter but it is obvious that Obama is the majority of democrat voters’ choice. Unless there is a backroom sleigh of hand deal with the super delegates Obama has won all the marbles. I really believe if the situation were reversed Obama would be receiving just as many calls to step down – probably more in fact. ~erika

  2. PunditMom Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, Erika, but I wasn’t trying to make this just about Hillary. I see this as a bigger gender issue that impacts us all. While the level of the gender hatred no doubt was elevated because of feelings about the Clintons, I worry how future women politicians — and women in general — will suffer as a result of how Hillary has been treated in the media and the license so many felt they had to bash her in gender specific terms.

  3. Amy in Ohio Says:

    PM – You (as always) give me a lot to think about. The weird thing is that now that it appears to be wrapping up, I’m thinking about HRC’s candidacy more than ever.

    Good points and it gives the next women plenty to learn from. I just wonder how much our nation will learn from it.

  4. Julie Pippert Says:

    (I am going to try to do this in less than 5000 words LOL)

    As cynical as I am about sexism (and I am VERY cynical after my experiences), I was still expecting the racism to be much worse.

    After thinking a lot, reading opinions, sorting through my own, and reading this, I’ve decided I’ve come to expect a double-standard.

    I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get rid of it because as best I can tell, it starts at the very beginning.

    Case in point:

    Boy stands at top of slide steps and blocks them. Everyone laughs, “Ha ha ha king of the castle.” His mother tells him to move, and slide out of the other kids’ way. So he does.

    Meanwhile (before mom made him move), kids are streaming up the steps. Boys shove past him. Girls ask permission and climb down sadly when he says no. A couple of girls persist a bit, try to plead, negotiate. One tries to duck under his arm, but they all accept his rebuffs.

    One girl thinks the block the stairs thing is pretty cool. She does.

    Boys shove past, girls ask permission. She lets girls through, but no boys, but they shove by anyway and she shrieks outraged.

    No adults laugh this time, one mom notifies the child’s mom that her kid is “bullying” and needs to move.

    This was all playground, true story, two weeks ago.

    And isn’t the culture just the same?

    You are so right, Joanne.

    it’s not just that women try to be more in mind of the collective and courteous, it’s that society will NOT accept it any other way. Not now it won’t.

    IMHO? We can make it about policy as much as we want, but in the end, I think the most passionate anti-Hillary people are such because of personality, by which I think a lot of people REALLY mean acting of line for a female. How conscious are they of that? I don’t know. But I think that’s at the heart of discomfort with “how she is” for a lot of people.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I’m an Obama supporter who agrees with you on these issues. Looking past the campaign, I see it so much in my own life. If we as women take without asking, we’re called horrible names that I won’t even write here. If we ask, we may or may not get what we want, but in the meantime there are already men ahead of us fighting for the same thing. You hit the nail on the head.

  6. West Coast Grrlie Blather Says:

    There’s no question in my mind that Hillary has had a tough time due to blatant sexism. She’s also had a tough time because some perceive her as part of the political machine that needs to be dismantled.

    I’ve been hanging out with Obama people,trying to catch Obama fever. I wish I could get it, but so far, no luck (no offense, Queen of Spain, not to mention all my family members).

    Even though I perceive Hillary to be part of the machine, I think she can “man handle” (just had to say that!) it. My fear is that said machine will chew up Obama and spit him out for lunch.

    It’s sad to me that working class whites will be perceived as racist and stupid for not supporting Obama. Just because you’re poor, white and working doesn’t mean you’re stupid. But we latte-sipping, New York Times reading, Stuff-White-People-Like white people with ‘no accent’ will see it that way.

    This morning I said to my husband, “The smartest thing Obama can do now is figure out how to solve the Michigan and Florida problem, and publicly propose a solution.” Certainly he remembers what a pain in the collective ass Florida was in 2000.

    My husband said, “But those states broke Democratic party rules.”

    I said, “Joe & Jane Public don’t give a rat’s ass about democratic party rules.”

    Time for Obama to put all that momentum to good use.

  7. Queen of the Mayhem Says:

    While I do agree that sexizm is alive and well in our country these days….I wonder if HRC’s treatment is more because she is a woman….or because she is not all that likable.

    Then again…..neither one of them are too attractive to this red gal! :)

  8. Karoli Says:

    I’m not a big fan of bad behavior no matter who does it, man or woman. Hillary Clinton’s conduct, including today’s little embrace of Karl Rove’s electoral map, has been abysmal.

    I also disagree with your statement that women are askers; men are takers. Vehemently.

    I don’t think you have to be amoral to be a woman in politics, any more than you have to be amoral to be a black guy in politics.

    What you DO have to do is stop beating the “I’m so persecuted” drum and stand up for what you believe in, consistently and effectively.

    When the postmortem is done on Senator Clinton’s campaign, its demise will not be because of sexism. It will be because he ran a better campaign than she did. And because Democrats were ready for a different style.

    The day she touted McCain over Obama, she lost me for good. She could have limited her commentary to HER superior knowledge and experience, but instead she actually elevated the November opponent over a member of her own party.

    And as I commented on Huffington post (where comments are so limited in length that I can’t fit what I want to say there), he is NOT declaring victory tomorrow. That’s media spin.

    What he will declare, after Sen. Clinton falsely claiming she leads in the popular vote (as if not even ONE person in Michigan cast a vote for Obama), is that he has the majority of pledged delegates.

    Which he will, leaving the final decision in the hands of superdelegates.

    That’s not a claim to the nomination. It’s a claim to the majority, and it’s legitimate.

    For the record, I am not one of the ones calling for her to step down, provided she can stop playing games with voters’ minds (like cheering Karl Rove’s electoral strategies, for example).

  9. anniegirl1138 Says:

    Likable? Men only have to be men but women have to be likable and pretty – pretty helps a whole lot. That and young(looking).

    When my Canadian husband asked me who I thought would win the Democratic nomination back in January, I told him that it depended on whether Americans were more sexist or more racist, and that I was personally betting on the former.

    Women are fools. We think that we have come a long way because society tells us so not because we have. So we foolishly throw away the best female presidential shot we are likely to have for a long, long time to come to elect another guy who smiles and promises us….what? What is he promising us? Change. No specifics just some vague idealistic fluff that isn’t addressing the very real problems that plague are society. Poverty. Health care. Global climate change. Impending food and clean water shortages. The federal deficit. And, oh yeah, we are losing a war in Iraq. Among other things.

    For women alone the stakes are high. We are slowly losing access to birth control and that all by itself will set us back farther than Clinton losing the nomination. We are expected to have babies and jobs without childcare or decent maternity leave. Our kids education is being perverted by the states under pressure from business to turn out obedient drones. We live longer and are more likely to be improvished as seniors because of the penalties we take to have babies and raise them.

    I will vote for Obama if he is the nom. McCain is not an option, but Obama is not my choice. He wants us to believe that he is pro-woman because he was raised by one and married one, but when he announces that Michelle is going to pursue her own career instead of being straight-jacketed with the First Lady gig – then I will believe it (hey, if Cherie Blair can can do it – why not?)

    Ugh, sexism is alive and in our faces in America.

  10. West Coast Grrlie Blather Says:

    Uh, sorry I didn’t address the true topic of this post (sexism). As I was growing up, my dad said, “Women shouldn’t drive or vote.”

    Now he tells me he was kidding. Riiiiight.

  11. Jaelithe Says:

    You know, I agree with you entirely that Hillary has been subjected to ridiculous sexism, both in the media, and in our culture at large.

    But, at the same time, I’m kind of sad that her (potential) loss of the nomination is being so widely discussed as a loss for feminism.

    Why? Well, when Edwards dropped out of the race, and it became a contest between a white woman and a black man, I was thrilled– absolutely, positively thrilled– that we had come to a point in history that such a race could even be run in the USA. That, whatever happened, we would be nominating someone from a traditionally oppressed group of people, someone who would be the first ever from that group to hold the nation’s highest office.

    But the thing is, no matter what, ONE OF THEM HAD TO LOSE. One of them did have to lose.

    And it seems to me that now, so many are focused on this idea that Hillary’s loss means that sexism is stronger than racism. There is so much focus on the negative. And I’m having trouble bringing back that sensation that I first had, that I was standing on the cusp of history; that a milestone of social progress was happening, right in front of my eyes.

    The idealist in me still wants to celebrate what Hillary and Barack, both, have done. I don’t want to forget that thrill I felt. It’s positively amazing, what each of them has done in this election. And I refuse to believe that Hillary’s campaign, as some might suggest, has somehow closed more doors for women candidates than it has opened. I refuse to believe it. I want to celebrate how far she has come. I want to feel that she has blazed a trail almost to the summit of a mountaintop, and that even if she doesn’t make it all the way to the top this time around to stick in her flag, many, many others will follow her.

    When my elementary school teachers told me anyone, male or female, of any race, who was a citizen, could run for president, I had no woman role models to look to. But Punditgirl does, now. Even if Hillary doesn’t win.

  12. Joseph from Brooklyn Says:

    I am glad you present your opinion in a non-confrontational way. This race has been so polarized that Clinton supporters simply cannot see why Obama supporters are so offended by some of their actions, and vice versa. Your reasoned, logical, big-picture approach allows you to broach the subject of sexism in the race without calling Obama supporters sexist. Well done.

    However, I find fault with your example about declaring victory. First of all, by the time this was posted on HuffPo (where I originally read it), it was widely reported that the Obama campaign was backing down from its assertions that Obama will have won by Tuesday night; they had already once again repeated that the race will go on until June 3 (even though, as you point out, it is the likely outcome that they will win).

    But more importantly, you ignore history. For months, Hillary Clinton declared herself the inevitable nominee, and no one said anything. Certainly she could be said to have been “taking” as opposed to “asking,” yet there was very little objection.

    In addition, there are many examples of things the Clinton campaign has gotten away with that would have been met with outcry or ridicule if they came from the Obama campaign; a few were pointed out by your fellow HuffPo blogger RJ Eskow:

    ‘ And about those “cards” – race and gender – here’s a little thought experiment: Imagine Obama had told the Associated Press last week that “real Americans, hard working Americans – American men – will vote for me.” Think back to Hillary’s “LBJ/Martin Luther King” comment, then imagine that Obama had said “Susan B. Anthony was a great talker, but it took Woodrow Wilson to get women the vote.” And imagine that a prominent male member of Obama’s campaign had said “she’s lucky she’s a woman, that’s the only reason she’s where she is.” ‘

    I think the example you cite has a lot more to do with the incredibly long odds Senator Clinton faces than underlying sexism in the media or society – which is not to say that this underlying sexism doesn’t exist. It clearly does, as your excellent argument points out…even though your example is flawed

  13. GMG Says:

    The central criticism in this article is based on a supposition that Obama will “proclaim himself the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination,” proving the point that “Men are takers, women are askers.” The first point is pure speculation on your part, Obama has not proclaimed anything yet. The second comment is the kind of sexist generalization that you should decry. To obtain a nomination to be President of the US is an extraordinarily difficut achievement which very few people have ever accomplished. Hillary Clinton has come ever so close and may yet pull this off. Because she may miss by a hair (largely I believe due to her poor campaign organization) it is then necessary to blame “sexism.” Can you really demonstate that the many sexist and racist comments made by media and otherwise have altered the outcome of this process? Is it possible that you are more concerned about airing your own experience with sexism than with an accurate analysis of this campaign?

  14. Manager Mom Says:

    The sexism thing really pisses me off as well. I am going to stop myself from writing a sixty page rant. But suffice it to say a lot of people have their head in their ass when they claim that sexism isn’t an issue any more.

    I just wish that I liked Hillary more as a CANDIDATE and a person. Her unlikeability is a shield that gives people a lot of excuses to treat her the way they do…

  15. Anonymous Says:

    “I’ve been hanging out with Obama people,trying to catch Obama fever. I wish I could get it, but so far, no luck.”

    So far, me neither. The attacks come fast and furious.

    “What you DO have to do is stop beating the “I’m so persecuted” drum and stand up for what you believe in, consistently and effectively.”

    I agree. And that goes for Obama supporters beating the racism drum.

    “When the postmortem is done on Senator Clinton’s campaign, its demise will not be because of sexism. It will be because he ran a better campaign than she did.”

    No. It will be because the media chose him for us. It will be because “racism” is more sexy than misogyny.

    “Likable? Men only have to be men but women have to be likable and pretty – pretty helps a whole lot. That and young(looking).”

    Exactly. Exactly. It’s even more disgusting when it comes from another woman.

    “For months, Hillary Clinton declared herself the inevitable nominee, and no one said anything. Certainly she could be said to have been “taking” as opposed to “asking,” yet there was very little objection.”

    No, there was loud objection and people still go back to those days saying she tried to “coronate” herself. There was very much objection.

    “Can you really demonstate that the many sexist and racist comments made by media and otherwise have altered the outcome of this process?”

    It’s all opinion. Voting is an opinion. The most votes/opinions for one person gets that person the Presidency. It doesn’t mean that that person is most qualified or the best choice, etc. The majority of opinions can still be wrong. That’s all that any analysis is, even with damn statisticians. Experience and education forms any opinion or lens through which facts are seen and analyzed; Punditmom has both, which makes her opinion as weighty as anyone elses, including those who will write the official post-mortems.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    …all these “reasonable” arguments that sexism is not the problem – they still don’t get it. Race trumps gender, every time.
    I’ve always found it interesting that only African Americans have a corner on the “race” word. Other cultures refer to themselves as “people of color”.

  17. PunditMom Says:

    About me? In relating one anecdote about my personal experience, I was trying to make the point that the sexist words used to describe a female Senator running for prsident aren’t just about her — they’re about every woman, and girl, in this country. Can we really achieve as women if many still insist on describing women as bitches and shrews?

    This isn’t about Hillary — she’s just the high profile example. How would any of us feel if that was our daughter out there running for president and being dismissed as Annie Oakley or if she was being questioned about whether she could function during those ‘few days a month?’

    I am not saying Clinton’s anticipated loss is due to sexism, though I know some believe that. I just worry about whether voters and the media will find reasons to do the same thing to the next women who follow her. Someday, it will be one of our daughters. Then how will we feel??

  18. PunditMom Says:

    And p.s., Obama’s campaign HAS been saying for at least a couple of weeks they would announce him to be the candidate after the voting in Oregon. If he’s changed his mind, that’s news.

  19. judy in ky Says:

    I really believe Hillary brought the “Annie Oakley” remark on herself when she pandered to the gun lobby. And don’t get me started on the “Bosnia” thing. I am all for equal treatment for women in politics and every other area, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving Hillary a pass!

  20. Caroline Says:

    Call me an eternal optimist but I am hoping this isn’t the end of HRC. I am hoping her campaign was the start of something big. I am hoping a precedent has been set and any woman can run successfully for prez – not just a Clinton. I feel for her, how DO you come across “presidential” when there has never been a woman, a mom, a wife running for prez? I agree, she has gotten the sexism shaft for sure and I also agree she was sometimes a hard person to “like”. I just hope shes busted through the wall, all be it a bit messily at times, and now women presidential candidates will be part of the norm. Not winning the presidency was certainly not the end for Gore. I am hoping the same for HRC too. I am honestly kind of bummed out to see her go – as happy as I am O. is probably our nom. Awesome post PM!

  21. MomBrain Says:

    My support for Clinton crystallized when I realized this race is just another smooth-talking man being promoted over a hard-working woman. I worked for 15 years in the vastly male-dominated dot.com world. It was a tricky balance — when I played by the men’s rules, I was criticized in performance reviews for being pushy and ruffling feathers. But when I put my dimples on and tried a more feminine approach, I got absolutely nowhere (though I had lots and lots of friends). If I succeeded, it was only by submerging my true self — with tremendous emotional and even physical stress.

    All this to say that Clinton’s campaign experience is a specific (though very public) example of the more general truth that many of us live with every day: It’s a Man’s World. When a woman “takes” success, she’s a bitch. When she “asks” for it, she’s dismissed — though more likeable. Navigating the middle ground requires thick skin, bullheaded persistence, and many, many costume changes.

    Who will be America’s first female president? Probably not Hillary Clinton. But I’m so grateful to her for provoking the public conversation that so many of us have been having privately for decades. She’s done a tremendous service for the woman who does succeed as Madame President; indeed, for all of us.

  22. TEOM Says:

    I have to climb out of the cave of depression this whole endeavor has sent me into before I can begin to think about where to go next…

  23. GMG Says:

    The ugliness of the political arena is such that candidates are going to get bashed and bashed at any vulnerable spot. Politics is war by another name. A woman (or man) who seeks the presidency has to be ready to stand up the vicious and vile invectives inevitably thrown their way. Look at what happened to Kerry and the Swift boaters. Kerry wilted. You are pleading for these contests to be fair, reasonable and polite. Clinton should stop complaining and so should you. Prepare your daughters and sons by teaching them to stand up for themselves. Obama has shown real class, more so than Clinton.

  24. GMG Says:

    To quote: “I am a 40+ year-old professional white woman, mother of two girls. A woman in the white house would be great.

    Please – before calling everything said about Hillary as sexist and before saying everything about Barack is racist. In fact, let’s try to be objective.

    I believe what we are seeing is the amazing power of the Clinton brand in this primary cycle. If we are bbeing honest and if Hillary were the frontrunner, Barack would have been run off in the past couple of months. Clinton’s standing and influence in the democratic party have been very valuable. Being a woman and First Lady, if anything, has benefitted her.

    Frankly, “sexism” has been used as an excuse. This is sad and counterproductive to women. The tossing around of this term has hurt, not helped women in this country.

    Barack has really taken the biggest hits and had the most negative coverage. iif looked at objectively, racism and talk of “white working class” voters has been far more offensive.

    I don’t believe that 20 million in debt is sexist reporting. I don’t believe laying out the math and the delegate count agreed to prior to the primary season’s beginning is sexist. I don’t see the delegate count as sexism. I cannot see how denying Florida and Michigan delegates a seat at the convention is a cause and effect of Hillary being female.

    Can anyone point to a specific case of sexism – don’t throw the word around like a baseball”

  25. PunditMom Says:

    Need some examples of sexist reporting?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcdnlNZg2iM

  26. People Power Granny Says:

    Today People Power Granny tells all why she refuses to vote for Hillary even though Granny fits into the demographics who should love a Hillary candidacy. Read why Granny won’t support Hillary this year or ever. Would you like to vote for Hillary or another woman for president? Why or why not?


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