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Running Start

Call Out Sexism in Politics: Women who run for office should deal with gendered attacks head-on.

Rep. Avery Bourne at Running Start’s Young Women to Watch Awards

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

No one doubts that women face more scrutiny that men for their looks. The scrutiny starts early, and no female is immune — we are judged by our bodies, our attractiveness, our hair and our clothes. If we hold leadership positions, we can almost guarantee we’ll be judged more on the way we look than on how we lead.

As political strategist Celinda Lake said, “When women’s ideas are threatening or women’s power is threatening, you often see them referred to in terms of their appearance.” Lake continued, “It’s a way to distract, to trivialize and to divert attention from the important things women are saying and doing.”

Last summer, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, I was shocked to see pins and T-shirts for sale, criticizing then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the most personal ways. One awful example: “KFC Hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.”

But this behavior isn’t unique to Republicans — nor men. As Susan Chira wrote recently in the New York Times, “Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise.” She cites a recent tweet from a woman asking: “Why does Kellyanne Conway always look like she’s still drunk & wearing makeup from last night’s bender?” Yes, attacks on appearance often come from women, too.

When you are running for office as a young woman, you are not just criticized for your appearance — you are often sexualized as well. In 2010, Virginia Democratic candidate Krystal Ball had an old racy photo used to discredit her campaign for Congress. Last year, someone sent out fake nude photos of Illinois State Rep. Avery Bourne to her campaign mailing list. And Alejandra Campoverdi, currently running for Congress in California, said her stint as a model has been used to show she isn’t a serious candidate.

Sexual shaming has always existed, but it is so much more prevalent now thanks to social media. As Campoverdi wrote recently in Cosmopolitan, “From this generation forward, every woman will have grown up in the digital age where, unless she sat in a turtleneck at home for all her teens, she will have pictures readily available online that can be used to shame her.”

In my role with Running Start, I speak to thousands of young women every year about running for office. These twin issues — scrutiny over appearance and worry about social media skeletons — come up in almost every training. My job is to persuade women that they don’t have to look “perfect” and that shaming over social media content is something they can stand up to. Authenticity is my buzzword.

True, when the world judges you by your sexuality and your appearance, as it clearly does, no amount of authenticity can fully shield you. I end up urging them to be authentic while doing my best to prepare them for the nastiness of how the world will sometimes view them.

But I also ask young women to take part in the #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign, where people who don’t look like traditional (read: old, white, male) candidates post photos showing that they, too, can run for office. And I refer them to the Name It. Change It. campaign, which calls out out the media when they attack female candidates based on their gender or sexuality. The campaign tells candidates to deal with sexist or gendered attacks head-on, instead of avoiding the comments or trying to ignore them, as conventional wisdom used to advise.

I saw this approach work beautifully with Krystal Ball. Instead of hanging her head and dropping out of the race when her reputation was attacked, she held a press conference and addressed the controversy. She didn’t win the race, but she gained a lot of supporters that day.

As she wrote in The Atlantic in 2011:

People may not have the right to know about your personal, private life … but they do have the right to know whether you are honest, candid and forthcoming. When you resist the scrutiny, you magnify the underlying embarrassment of the photo or whatever it is and you bring into question your own candor and forthrightness…and that is fair game. Let the media savage you a little bit. Your dignity gets a bit ruffled, but the storm blows over and people know that you don’t duck and hide.

I hope more young women will follow Ball’s hard-nosed advice. If instead, as Campoverdi wrote, “these women decide to sit this one out because of [fear of personal attacks], we will miss out on talented, transformational women leaders in every public-facing field, especially politics.” And that would be the real shame.


Susannah Wellford founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.



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