On Sexism and the Race for the Presidency
By Krista Schwimmer
This year, women’s history month falls in a presidential election year. Fittingly, the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) has announced the following theme: “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” At the writing of this article, six women candidates are vying for the nomination for their political party. For the Peace and Freedom party, they are Dr. Lynn Kahn, Gloria Estea La Riva, and Monica Moorehead; for the Green Party, Jill Stein; and for the Democratic party, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Implied in the NWHP theme is respect. How do we as a country respect women in public service and government? One way of showing respect, of course, is by nominating and electing women in the first place. Another way is by how we talk about them publicly. In the case of Hillary Clinton, certainly the presidential female candidate with the highest profile, there is a tremendous amount of overtly sexist comments being piled at her daily. Much to my dismay, many people from all political sides are not only participating — they are denying, dismissing, and ignoring the comments.
Take, for instance, the plethora of comments found under the Vice article, “Underdog Clinton Berates Sanders in New Hampshire Debate.” Here, Mike Lemon calls Clinton a “daft cunt”; Francis Orivas, “stupid fucking piece of shit bitch”; and, Nick Noce, adds a bit of violence for fun: “someone just hit that thundercunt with a mack truck already; it could only make her easier to look at and listen to.” (i)
Next, there is the offensive hashtag, #WordsThatDon’tDescribeHillary.” created by Doc Thompson, conservative radio talk show host. Mary Nugent and Emma Pierson wrote an article that examines more than 12,000 tweets with this hashtag. One thousand of them criticized Clinton for her appearance, her femininity, or her husband. The most tweets commonly criticized Clinton as dishonest and untrustworthy, as well as not likeable or even human. (ii)
How is this comment sexist? Nugent and Pierson explain: “The prevalence of adjectives that question Clinton’s trustworthiness and likability echoes the academic work on women in politics. Kathleen Hall Jamieson called this phenomenon the ‘Double Bind’: women must demonstrate ‘toughness’ and other traditionally masculine traits in order to show they are fit for office — and yet if they appear too tough they risk violating gender norms and in turn losing the trust of voters.” (iii) (Note: For those of you that really don’t trust Clinton based on her record, please note the use of the adjective “prevalence” before launching into a rant.)
Finally, there is Republican Presidential candidate, Ted Cruz’s comment about Hillary Clinton caught on camera back in January. Laura Bates, Founder of Everday Sexism Project, writes about it in her article, “’Spanking’ Hillary Clinton is Grotesque Misogyny.” Bates states: “Accusing Clinton of lying about the Benghazi attack, Cruz said: ‘I’ll tell you in my house, if my daughter Catherine, the 5-year-old, says something that she knows to be false, she gets a spanking. Well in America the voters have a way of administering a spanking.’ In the video clip the audience, almost all male, can be seen laughing appreciatively.” (iv)
Reading these comments, I felt I had descended into Dante’s hell. Still, I should thank these men and women for the experience. After all, since I am a fortune teller by trade, I’ll be heading to the eighth circle myself when I die. There, my punishment will be to have my head turned backwards, as well as to walk backwards through all eternity, my eyes blinded with tears. Maybe that’s the part of hell Madeleine Albright was referring to when she said there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women. Walking backwards would allow them to review the history of women. Reading women’s history, whether for the first or fiftieth time, would make anyone weep.
Is this country ready for a woman president? One would think we were, considering that we elected an African-American man twice. African-American men, however, got the right to vote in 1869 when the 15th Amendment passed. On a federal level, it was not until the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18th, 1920 that women got the right to vote. Of course, African-American men and women actually being ALLOWED to vote is another serious and important conversation.
Still, sexism towards any woman candidate does not necessarily mean people are less likely to vote for her. Nicole Bauer writes that there is little research to suggest “that voters are overwhelmingly against female candidates.” (v) Gender affinity isn’t just based on shared gender, but also “shared convictions of what’s important.” (vi) If that’s the case, why care about the way people are addressing Clinton and her bid for presidency? Why not shake it off, call it a day, move on to the more pressing matters of feeding the homeless, saving the California Coastline from greedy developers, or figuring out the language of birds?
Because it indicates that the United States still has a long way to go when it comes to women in power. No matter what your views are of Hillary Clinton, she has the background and experience not only to run for president, but to succeed. If you cannot acknowledge the importance of this possibility for women, if you cannot see this as a culmination of a period at least starting from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, then I think it’s time you sat down and had a serious talk with your inner feminist, or go to a Jungian analyst and determine just why you have decided to project such hate onto a woman you most likely have never met. Mommy issues? Who knows. Complexes are, well, complicated.
Like many children in the 1960’s, I watched the wonderful series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” I, too, wanted to learn French and join the crew of the Calypso. I initially went to Duke University and decided on a zoology major; then, changed schools and majors as well. I ended up graduating with a B.A. from the Gallatin University of New York University.
Later, in my early 30’s, I decided to once more go back to school, this time directly pursuing marine biology. Only then did I learn about the remarkable oceanographer, Sylvia Earle. Nicknamed “Her Deepness,” Earle led the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970. She also logged in a solo record dive of 1,000 meters. I was stunned that I had never heard about her. I wonder if I had heard about her in the 1970’s, when I was preparing to go to university for the first time, would that have made a difference?
Role models are so important for all of us. In the case of the American Presidency, the first woman elected will inspire girls interested in politics, even if it is because the girl thinks she can do a much better job!!
Although sexism is a perfectly acceptable way to look at the crass language directed at Clinton, there is another lens one can view it through. After all, the Republican candidates are name flinging openly at each other. We can see all of it as lacking manners. At first thought, lacking manners could not possibly trump the sexist card.
Rudeness is nonetheless a form of violence; and, for some, a measure of a culture. In the book, “The Freedom Manifesto”, Tom Hodkinson states that “disintegrating manners are the sign of disintegrating society. The late Romans were rude, the contemporary American Government is rude. It is rude to kill 27,000 Iraqi civilians. Interference is rude; governments are rude; professions are rude.”(vii) If Hodkinson is correct, America is heading into a serious descent.
I do hope that those of you out there who support the current political process go out and vote in the primaries (for California, June 7th) and in the national election (November 8th). In the meantime, don’t let yourself or others say such deeply disparaging things about any woman candidate. In this election year, don’t just say a woman’s gender does not matter. As a woman, it certainly matters deeply to me.
Of course, I would not encourage any voter to simply vote for any of the six women candidates simply because they are women; but, I have no problem if their gender is one of the deciding factors.
So, even if you are voting vehemently against Hillary Clinton (which I know some of your Beachhead readers are), please take the time to stand up for her, and other women running for office, against sexist language. In this way, you are standing up for the dignity of all women and saving all of us from descending further into our own, man-made hell.
(vii)”The Freedom Manifesto,” Tom Hodgkinson, pp. 259-260.