“I don’t know how that woman got out of bed some days”

“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?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    As long as we see people as minorities, they will also be seen as curiosities. And when there’s a singular focus on someone different, then this sort of judgmental conduct is free to proceed.

    I think part of the issue goes down the fact that few decent people, gender notwithstanding, wish to run in the first place. So we get these inferior leaders obsessed with all the wrong things. And certainly any woman running for office is going to have an additional challenge on top of that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/judithbutlertron/ R

    When I was grilled by my fellow Lieberals about why I, as a woman, was not automatically supporting HRC because we both have vaginas, I found I spent more time explaining my nuanced position on this point to people than I spent actually talking comparative policy. Yes, it’s really vital to have women and people of colour in office, but making it clear that your vote is based on their ambassadorship to the Nation Of Vaginas/Melanin is tokenism, and not progressive! Saying “let’s put a woman in charge, because of some insane piece of gender prescriptivism” is not making things BETTER, right? RIGHT?

    *tears hair*

    I also had to explain to a surprising (at the time) number of people that Palin was dreadful and could be fairly criticised for a laundry list of reasons, none of which had to do with her gender. The baffled confusion – and eventually irritation and eyerolling – of my fellow Nattering Nabobs of Negativism every time I corrected their misogynist language and assertions as to her unfitness to be in office because of those things was really eye-opening for me, and helped me realise how very superficial women’s gains in the political arena have been.

  • http://feministing.com/members/pgika/ Corentin

    I don’t know the American media, but in France, humorists have separated woman politicians in two categories : “fat/ugly” (nerdy ?) and “dumb”.
    Here, you can say that the head of the socialist party Martine Aubry should be called “Tartine Aubry” (“tartine” is a slice of bread with butter or jam or pâté or anything) because she’s ugly and fat, on the public TV channel, and nobody finds something wrong. So funny. -_-
    You can also say that Royal (the socialist rival of Sarkozy) is dumb. Nothing wrong. If you are left-wing, you’re so funny. The 2007 election were really, really violent against her. Sarkozy was maybe seen as a dictator, but she was seen as a old bourgeois bimbo
    This was the same with the woman wanted to filter the internet against illegal downloads (Albanel). Even if this idea was stupid, a huge part of the arguments was against her “dumbness”, and her fillers “(she should be so stupid to have them!”).
    You can also joke about the “lack of femininity” of the right-wing minister Alliot-Marie. I think this is because she’s seen as an intelligentwoman by the other side.. “Lololol”.

  • beet

    I worked on Hillary Clinton’s ’08 campaign in numerous roles. By far the worst part was the division in the Democratic party. It’s one thing for religious conservatives to engage in sexism troglodytism. You expect that. It’s another thing for the people who you thought were on your side, the so called “Progressive” men, to abandon what you thought was a core principle of social justice — anti-sexism — in the heat of a campaign, and to engage in even worse sexism that you heard from the conservatives. This wound still has not been resolved because it is not about Clinton, rather it is about sexism. And this wound will NOT be resolved until the Democratic party puts a woman on the Presidential ticket. End of Story.

    Almost as bad as that was, i was checking Feministing every day back then, and the pushback coming from this site was non existent. It was a day in, day out battle against sexism, with literally new examples coming out every 24 hours. Thousands of us were fighting tool and nail. Where was Feministing? Only once in a long while you would post a sexism watch piece. I am not sure why. I chalked it up to not wanting to offend people here who supported Obama, but it was just sad, to see Jessica did not really take a stand, another moment like that will not come in a long time and when the moment came, Feministing did not step up to the plate.

  • http://feministing.com/members/theoutcast/ Heather

    While women really do not like to be judged (usually very unfairly, of course) whether it is their appearance or ideas, there is far more to the problem of women not running for office.

    It’s because so many women tend to become concerned about politics after they have children or a house, etc. By then there is no time to run for office.

    Recently, I looked into this. If I run for political office, I may get a voluntary place somewhere after I have had to beg people to fund my political campaign. But I still need my 40K job, my family still needs a hot dinner, my son needs a bath at night (my husband works nights). Many women with the energy and desire are not finding the proper economic and time allowances to make runs for political offices accessible. It’s daunting. I would love to participate. But I need a paycheck and my son needs his mom for the next 15 years.

    Logicistics is a huge problem. I think if most elected offices paid a decent wage and there was public funding for campaigns, we would see more women jumping in — alot!

    I’ll just have to wait at least 15 years, like many other women out there.