Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

Sexist attacks hurt female candidates, but accusations of sexism can help them

September 23, 2010 - 04:30 PM
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Female candidates like Christine O'Donnell can gain ground by responding to sexist attacks (Photo: Associated Press)

A very recent history of mainstream political sexism: Rep. Betty Sutton should "go back to the kitchen"; vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a "mean girl"; Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is an "ice queen"; presidential candidate Hillary Clinton either shows too much cleavage or not enough; Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand is the "hottest" member of Congress; Sen. Mary Landrieu is "the most expensive prostitute in the history of prostitutes."

And then there's this, said of 2008 Pennsylvania congressional candidate Sam Bennett, and printed in her local newspaper: "Sammy Bennett is phony political w**** who gives good h**d and makes cheap, blatant political opportunists look like Mother F****** Teresa. Even her p**** is made of plastic" (asterisks Bennett's).

During the campaign, Bennett never responded to her detractors. But today, Bennet—president and CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum—held a press conference at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, urging women not to follow her lead. According to new research sponsored by the WCF, sexist attacks do hurt female candidates—but calling them out as sexist can help women regain their ground.

"When I ran for congress in 2008, I experienced a misogyny that was so breathtaking that I decided I needed to do something about," Bennett said at the press conference. "During the campaign, everyone told me just to ignore it. That it doesn't matter. To move on. After my race was over, I realized that I had made a mistake. I should have done something."

Bennett lost that race. But new research conducted by Democratic political strategist Celinda Lake suggests that when female candidates are met with sexist attacks, they can boost their numbers by responding to the attacks directly. Lake presented two fictional candidates to both male and female voters: Jane Smith, a woman, and Dan Jones, a man. Then, she presented voters with sexist characterizations of Smith—both mild and severe—with the help of real-life attacks levied against actual female candidates.

Lake presented criticisms of both Smith and Jones—but only the attacks against Smith were sexist in nature. When voters were met with mild sexist attacks on Smith (of the "mean girl" and "ice queen" variety, or commentary on the candidate's style of dress), both Smith and her male challenger lost voter confidence, but Smith lost more votes than Jones. The more severe attacks (calling Smith a "stupid girl" and comparing her to a prostitute) eroded Smith's support further.

According to Lake's research, both male and female voters bought into the sexist language (and according to WCF's media research, both male and female reporters are to blame for perpetuating these tropes in the media).

But Lake also found that Smith could regain those votes if she responded to the attack in one of three ways: If she called the attacks as "inappropriate"; if she directly named them directly as "sexist"; or if an outside group denounced the attack for her.

The take-away? Sexism still hurts female candidates. But they no longer have to stomach it.


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  1. TJ TJ

    TJ T

    Sep 29, 2010 - 04:00:36 PM

    Good Job, Amanda. Sometimes you have to, as my mother says, zip up your gorilla suit and go on the attack! We as women don't have to take that kind of ugly vitriol.

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