“That woman” is Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the reason Rep. Nita Lowey of New York’s 18th district was in awe of her ability to get up in the morning was the sexist commentary that HRC endured during the 2008 primary season.
The increasing nasty and sexist tone of political discourse was at the front of everyone’s minds last night at 92nd Street Y, where the topic was “Women, Power and Politics.” Former Planned Parenthood CEO and author of No Excuses Gloria Feldt moderated a panel of three women – Salon senior writer and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry Rebecca Traister, commentator and writer Katha Pollitt and Lowey – and led them in a discussion about women’s political participation, from the voting booth to the Congressional Oversight Committee.
Feldt began the evening by noting that even though 1992 was declared “the year of the woman” because of the many women who entered electoral politics that year, “women have barely moved the dial since.” Indeed, this new Congress is the first in which there are fewer women than in the one before. When Feldt asked the panelists what it was that was keeping women from putting themselves out there, Pollitt pointed to “the relentless focus on women’s appearance.” It’s discouraging, Pollitt said, that in order to do anything that will attract media attention, a woman will have to deal with strict scrutiny of everything – her hair, her clothes, her weight, her age, her adherence to cultural ideas about femininity. “Men don’t have to deal with this,” Pollitt said, pointing out that the range of what’s physically acceptable for men in the public eye is far wider than the acceptable range for women.
Lowey observed that the tone of the discourse, while more sexist than usual is simply nastier than it was when she arrived in Congress in 1989. Lowey, who is friends with both Nancy Pelosi and Gabby Giffords, says that the tone of the current discourse concerns her greatly. “I have never seen the meanness I’ve seen in these past elections,” Lowey said. “Of course it was not just against women, but the meanness, the nastiness is just out of sight.”
It’s true that the nastiness, and the violence of the rhetoric, is sometimes ungendered. But the panelists made it clear that women who put themselves out there can expect to have a tougher go of it than men. When an audience member asked a question about sexism directed at Sarah Palin, Traister stressed that pointing out sexism when it happens in public discourse is essential – even when it’s directed at someone whose politics we disagree with. Traister observed that during the 2010 election cycle, there was something of a fetishization of “dumb” women candidates. Citing Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Traister noted that there was a disproportionate amount of coverage devoted to the outlandish and “stupid” things these women said. Meanwhile, there was very little attention paid to the many other competent women who were running, and very little coverage devoted to men candidates who said outlandish or “stupid” things.
All in all, it’s still hard out there for women candidates, and it can be hard for women voters to figure out how they, as individuals, can change the sexism of the discourse and the dismal proportions of women in leadership. When asked for their advice on how to do that, Traister had an answer: if women want to change things, they should vote, and they should run for office.
So, what are you waiting for?