FROM SUGGESTING THAT nobody would want to vote for Carly Fiorina because of her face to his recent disgust at Hillary Clinton’s extended bathroom break, Donald Trump has the spotlight when it comes to sexism in politics. Though Trump may be the loudest and most highly publicized, he is simply joining in on a long tradition of bashing women in positions of power. It’s important that the loudness of one man doesn’t obscure the widespread nature of sexism as a societal phenomenon.
Hillary Clinton has been the subject of intense criticism since first running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Unfortunately, much of that criticism has centered on gender rather than policy. In 2007, MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson said of Clinton, “when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” In a 2008 interview on “Morning Joe,” Pat Buchanan compared Clinton’s raised voice to “what every husband in America… has heard at one time or another.” A 2014 cover of Time portrays Clinton as a giant in a pantsuit with a tiny man dangling helplessly from the heel of her shoe.
That is just a very small sampling of how mainstream media treats one female politician. Equally alarming are the seemingly unconscious reflections of such sexist attitudes from the general public. “I just don’t like her at all” and “Ugh, that b*tch” are deemed sufficient explanations by some. Memes circulate social media referring to Clinton as “America’s nasty mother-in-law” and making an analogy between Clinton’s body and a bucket of fried chicken (“2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts…”).
These words and images spread under the guise of humor and legitimate opinion. In fact, they reflect nothing of political knowledge and everything of ass-backward attitudes toward women, and particularly those in positions of power: the nagging, man-eating, emasculating, bossy, ugly b*tches.
Progress happens on the level of institutions and it happens on the level of popular consciousness. Ideally, these things go together, perpetuating and reinforcing one another. But it seems that American consciousness is not quite caught up to institutional allowance of women into politics. Societal attitudes toward women – reflected by both men and women – may account for the fact that women comprise only 19% of Congress and 25% of state legislators. From an international perspective, America does poorly when it comes to the representation of women in national legislature; we rank 33rd among 49 “high-income” countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2014 report, and 83rd among a larger group of 139 countries.
For all our fantasies about being the best and freest nation in the galaxy, in 2015, Americans are still wary of powerful women. Two recent surveys yielded different but similarly disturbing results when researchers asked participants whether they believed men are generally more suited for politics than women: 17% agreed in one survey, and 31% in another. That’s about one in five to one in three Americans. In the latter survey, agreement was the same between men and women.
In that study, researchers presented hypothetical candidates, one man and one woman, belonging to different political parties. They found that agreement with the above statement didn’t cause voters in this hypothetical situation to cross party lines in order to vote for a man over a woman. However, the researchers note that this somewhat popular bias against women in politics could impact who voters opt for in the primaries when a race is between a man and woman belonging to the same party, narrowing the woman’s shot at nomination. (True, this isn’t likely a problem for Clinton in the current race, but her name recognition and political experience are anomalous.)
Aside from already-present bias against women in positions of power among some voters, the problem is compounded by the influence of sexist insults on public opinion. In a 2010 study, participants were presented with two hypothetical candidates: one male, one female. Half the participants saw attack ads focusing on policy, while the other half viewed ads featuring gendered criticism of the female candidate (including names like “ice queen” and “mean girl”). The female candidate’s initial 43% approval rating fell to 33% among those who saw ads emphasizing policy criticism and to 21% among viewers who were exposed to sexist criticism of the candidate.
Importantly, the hypothetical female candidate regained much of her lost support from participants who viewed the sexist ads by directly addressing the nature of the comments made against her – either by deeming them “inappropriate” or directly calling them out as sexist.
Bias against women in politics is not limited to a small behind-the-times faction, much less one loud-mouth caricature of a person. Even those of us who are comfortable with or enthusiastic about women in positions of power may be susceptible to the sway of sexist rhetoric, which plays on messages about women we have been inundated by all our lives. It’s imperative that we think critically about how others shape their opinions and what factors influence the formation of our own.
I don’t want Clinton to be president — much less Fiorina. But let’s leave behind the B-words and the fried chicken analogies.