Adoring parents of this generation, intent on uplifting their young daughters, tell them that no goal is too high. No profession, no position of power, no political office is off limits to them.
Nevertheless, these well-meaning parents probably don’t think to coach their little girls on what to do when, in their climb to the top, they meet with the inevitable innuendos comparing them to a pole dancer, prostitute or “ice queen.” Think I’m exaggerating? Each of these has been made against a female candidate recently seeking political office.
It should shock no one. Sexism has long been a powerful campaign tactic. It’s a maliciously effective tool in undermining a female candidate’s chances of winning. The mere threat of it derails many women, dissuading them from even considering a political bid. There isn’t a female politician alive who hasn’t faced the possibility of having her hair, wardrobe and makeup screened more than her resume.
For too long, women seeking political office have unknowingly played along. They have been encouraged not to challenge snide commentary and outright misogyny. For generations, we’ve held on to the outmoded notion that a lady never raises her voice, doesn’t lower herself to the level of detractors. She must demurely decline to confront. Best to just “let it go.”
Many female candidates and their supporters are choosing to push back. One powerful new voice is the website NameItChangeIt.com, a place for women candidates and their supporters to learn how negative gender-based commentary undermines campaigns — and what to do about it.
The non-partisan site is a project of the WCF Foundation, Women’s Media Center and Political Parity. Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann and Elizabeth Warren are currently featured on the homepage.
The impetus for the site is research that shows how quickly a derogatory comment, even if it is mildly sexist, can cut into a female candidate’s standing with potential voters. And not just with certain voters predisposed to be sexist. It lowered opinions of a candidate across the board: with men, women, Republicans, Democrats and independents. Even when voters are a bit turned off by the attacker’s language, they still tend to think less of the woman who has been maligned.
The findings, gathered in a study by political pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners, contradicted the advice she herself had given to female candidates caught in the snare of nasty attacks. Sidestepping doesn’t work, Lake discovered. However, women candidates who respond to attacks and then pivot the conversation in their favor can win back the support lost.
A recent post on NameItChangeIt took on the Huffington Post, and Fox News Radio for focusing attention on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle and weight. To the suggestion that her appearance indicated that she’s “not trying,” a blogger on the site came back: “Is traveling to Azerbaijan to implore their government to start respecting their citizens’ rights considered ‘not trying’? Is working with Russia to transfer power from the Syrian regime in response to the country’s recent massacre ‘not trying’?”
That’s a perfect reply.
The site has also recently drawn attention the nicknames opponents and unsympathetic newspapers have applied to Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren: Liz, Lizzie, Libby. Strangely, nobody seems to be calling her opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, “Scotty.”
The goal of NameItChangeIt isn’t to reach a plastic world where no one sees gender differences. The last thing women need is for people to stop seeing them as women, in an effort not to offend them.
Yet much of what is said and written about female candidates never receives the widespread scrutiny applied to the crude tirades against female politicians from Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. A lot of this stuff plays out in minor elections in small cities and counties.
An effort like NameItChangeIt is critical in that it allows people to post those experiences in one place, for many to see. It can help candidates in obscure local races fight back. That’s crucial, because many nationally prominent female political figures launched their careers by running for school board or city council.
Women are 51 percent of the population, yet they remain a mere 17 percent of Congress members and 23 percent of state legislators. Only 10 percent of women have ever thought about running for office, compared with 20 percent of men.
If that is ever going to change — and hopefully it will in the next generation of women — it’s time to start. First, by confronting the sort of scurrilous rhetoric that sets women back.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)