- Christine O'Donnell wears the man-pants in this election (Photo: Associated Press)
This campaign season, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett has found herself at the top of the political sexism speed-dial. Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Forum, launched the "Name It, Change It" campaign earlier this year to help female candidates respond to sexist attacks from challengers and the media. The campaign's research showed that sexist attacks against women can hurt female candidates in the polls—but that candidates who denounce those attacks and call them "sexist" can end up earning political points.
So when conservative bloggers published "sexy Santa" photographs of Virginia Congressional candidate Krystal Ball, Ball called Bennet, and then she called the photo leak sexist. And when news broke that a Jerry Brown aide had referred to California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman as a "whore," Whitman called Bennet, and then she called the slur sexist, too.
Now: Say a male politician is accused of lacking the "cojones" for the job. What should he do?
The Washington Post has a handy compendium of sexist attacks against men that have cropped up this election cycle. Quickly: In Nevada, Sharron Angle told Harry Reid to "man up"; in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell called Mike Castle "unmanly" and suggested he quit the "bake-off" and get his "man-pants on"; in Colorado, Jane Norton said Ken Buck wasn't "man enough"; in Missouri, Robin Carnahan told Roy Blunt to "man up"; in New York, Carl Paladino thrice accused Andrew Cuomo of lacking "cojones."
Do attacks on a candidate's "manliness" hurt him in the polls? And how should he respond to these sexist attacks? "We know that when sexist attacks are specifically lobbed at a woman, that they negatively impact her electoral outcome," Bennett says. But the "Name It, Change It" research hasn't addressed whether "cojones" remarks negatively impact male numbers—or if complaining about sexist inferences to male genitalia would help these men in the polls. "We don’t know the answer to that question," Bennett says.
What Bennett does know is that accusations of deficient manliness "are rooted in a tradition of sexism against women" in politics, she says, "whether a woman lobs it at a man, a man lobs it at a woman, or a man lobs it at a man." When a candidate infers that manliness is a requirement for political office, female politicians everywhere suffer a hit. "It's the same woman-bashing form of sexism, just sliced a different way," Bennett says.
And when men are attacked in a misogynist way, more targeted sexist attacks against women are allowed to thrive. "It reinforces the normalization of this way of talking, and that’s our big enemy," Bennett says. "It definitely hurts women candidates, no matter who’s throwing it around."
So while instructing Mike Castle to apply his "man-pants" may or may not have contributed to Christine O'Donnell's success, it's certainly dinged every woman seeking office who does not even own a pair. "Clearly, some female candidates have figured out how to use sexist attacks to their own end," Bennett says. "Let’s make a world where you don’t have to do that."