Sexism in Politics Happened Long Before Hillary Clinton

It’s almost 2018 and sexism in media and politics has not gotten much better than when Elizabeth Cady Stanton ran for Congress in 1866. Seriously.

Hillary Clinton has become the poster child for sexism in politics — and maybe rightfully so — but let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of women before her that have experienced the “hard glass ceiling.” In fact, let’s not forget about the women that have ran for president before her.

Unless you’re seriously committed to studying women’s history, you’ve probably never heard of Victoria Woodhull. She was the first woman to ever run for President of the United States. She was instrumental in the creation of the Equal Rights Party, and in 1870 she ran for president for that party. She literally ran for president before women even had the right to vote. Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist we’ve all heard about, was actually selected to be her running mate, yet he was too embarrassed to acknowledge it. Over 200 women have ran for president, and yet we’ve heard of only 3, maybe 4 of them — and we’ve definitely never learned about any women of color. Not only has history intentionally forgotten about the achievements of women, it has been whitewashed to the point where the only times we talk about people of color are Slavery the Civil Rights Era.

Credit: National Women’s History Musem

While we’re on the subject of conveniently forgotten WOC, let’s talk about Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African-American woman to be elected into Congress in 1968. In 1972, she became the first African-American woman to seek a nomination for president from one of the two major parties. Racism and sexism ran rampant during her campaign. She was blocked from televised primary debates and received little to no funding from the Congressional Black Caucus, which had been mostly men. Chisholm had to take legal action in order to gain access to the amenities that the other candidates were afforded, but even then, she was only granted one speech. Even though every opportunity had been squandered, she managed to receive about 10% of the delegates’ vote.

Credit: The Daily Beast

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to run for vice president on a major political party ticket. Walter Mondale, a former vice president, chose Ferraro as his running mate as a tactical move to gain attention. She was clearly used as a pawn to attract voters, as she was extremely inexperienced. Journalists and reporters used her inexperience as a segue make sexist remarks. During Meet the Press, she was actually asked: “”Do you think that in any way the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” I wish you all could see how hard my eyes are rolling.

Fast forward to 2008 when the infamous Sarah Palin ran for Vice President for the Republican party. John McCain received intense scrutiny for his running mate because she was widely ill-prepared and unknown. If anyone has seen her one-on-one interviews and VP debates, you’d agree that she was unqualified. This made attacks on her gender all too easy.

In a study done by Meredith Conroy, Caroline Heldman, and Sarah Oliver, they compared many different aspects of the campaigns between Ferraro and Palin. In the 57 page paper, the three eloquently describe their findings:

We conclude with some general comments about women and vice presidential candidate selection. Literature on the vice presidency shows that candidates are selected with the idea that 1) they are ready to assume the presidency, 2) will serve as “attack dogs,” 3) will broaden the presidential candidate’s appeal, and 4) will unify the party. Neither Ferraro nor Palin were selected primarily using these criteria. Both candidates were not perceived as ready to assume the presidency, and their selection did not unify their respective political parties. Instead, these two candidates were primarily selected to appeal to female voters. Ferraro was meant to capitalize on Ronald Reagan’s growing gender gap in voter support, and Palin was selected to appeal to disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters. Both were inadequately vetted, and the campaign paid the price (i.e., Ferraro’s husband’s business dealings, Palin’s pregnant daughter, Troopergate, etc.). Presidential candidates/parties have only added women to the ticket as 26 novelties that might energize an underdog ticket. Maybe the novelty aspect explains the apparent role of physicality in female vice presidential selection. In both instances, energetic, passionate, physically attractive candidates who are arguably unqualified for the (potential) presidency have been selected over more qualified choices. Women have been tokens in U.S. politics for most of our nation’s history, but nowhere is this more the case than with the office of the vice presidency.

Finally on to the most talked about woman in politics in history (probably), Hillary Clinton. Never has a woman, let alone person, be so qualified to be President of the United States, yet Donald Trump is our President. It’s almost a year into Trump’s administration, but the media still cannot keep their eyes off Hillary Clinton. A google search of her name will show “breaking stories” from 3 hours ago.

Being the First Lady and running for president twice has made her a prime candidate for sexist backlash. Two presidential terms stood between her campaigns, and yet the rhetoric has remained exactly the same. From 2008 to 2016, Hillary Clinton received the most textbook sexist comments and coverage than any woman in politics. Media Matters compiled a comprehensive list of sexist attacks on Clinton from just the 2008 campaign. They even grouped them together by common theme such as: Calling Clinton a “Bitch”, Claims that Clinton’s Femininity is a Problem, Claims that Clinton is Manly, and even, Questioning Clinton’s Sexuality. Seriously. Even though she has never expressed her sexuality as anything other than heterosexual, she had to answer in a professional interview whether or not she was a lesbian.

One of my personal favorite pieces is written by Rush Limbaugh, in which he claimed that America doesn’t want to actually watch a woman get age right before their eyes.

But men aging makes them look more authoritative, accomplished, distinguished. Sadly, it’s not that way for women, and they will tell you…I’m just giving an honest assessment here of American culture. Look at all of the evidence. I mean, I’ve just barely scratched the surface with some of the evidence, and so: Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis? And that woman, by the way, is not going to want to look like she’s getting older, because it will impact poll numbers. It will impact perceptions.

Attractiveness is subjective, but is that the measurement of what it means to be a good president?

I wonder what Rush Limbaugh would have to say about Mr. Trump.

In the study I mentioned earlier that examined the differences between Ferraro’s and Palin’s campaign, several hypotheses were tested. I found many of these to be extremely interesting, but not surprising.

  1. Reporters are twice as likely to mention the dress/appearance of female candidates as male candidates.
  2. Female candidates are four times as likely to receive sexist coverage as male candidates.
  3. Reporters are twice as likely to mention female candidates’ families as male candidates’ families.
  4. Reporters are significantly more likely to use a negative tone and negative adjectives/traits in female candidate coverage.
  5. Female candidates are more likely to be linked to “feminine” policies than male candidates.
  6. Male candidates are more than twice as likely to be linked to “masculine” policy issues than female candidates.

The last two points are something really interesting to me that I’ve never given too much thought. Let’s take a look at what is considered “masculine” and “feminine” policies.

Masculine Policies: Economy/Taxes, Terrorism, Guns, Crime, Drugs, Jobs/Unemployment

Feminine Policies: Education, Health Care, Abortion, Rape, Pay Equity, Housing/Homelessness, Entitlement Programs

Let me be clear, Hillary Clinton is not the end all be all of sexism in politics. But she does serve as a prime modern day example. I do not think sexism in politics, much less in general, will ever really disappear. Sexism has almost become the “forgotten oppression” of the -ism’s. I can’t say whether or not sexism has diminished, but when I can say is women continue to prevail.



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