Women in the public eye face a certain level of scrutiny that’s hard to fathom. Sexism is rampant in most areas of life, but especially in male-dominated fields where men have written the rules of engagement for literal centuries. Politics is the quintessential good-old-boys club, shutting out those who don’t fit the prototype of white Christian manhood. And although we’ve made immense progress in diversifying politics and electing hundreds of women and people of color to higher office in recent years, one glass ceiling remains very much intact: the presidency, which remains as elusive to women today as it was at its inception in 1787. Several women are now seeking the office and declaring their candidacy for 2020. And even though it’s more likely now than ever that the 46th president will be a woman, sexism is still a pervasive force on the campaign trail and in the political media. Knowing this, it’s helpful to disentangle the various types of sexist attacks female candidates will face. Check out my list below of the four most common types of sexism during election season and how we can fight against these tropes.
Stupid sexism is actually funny because it’s just so ridiculous. However, the humor quickly gives way to concern for the state of American sex ed. Stupid sexism mixes misogyny with a deep misunderstanding of female anatomy and physiology. The most memorable manifestation of ignorant sexism is the concern that a female president’s period would force her to start a nuclear war because she’s moody. This concern was most recently raised about former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a letter-to-the-editor during the 2016 campaign. However, considering Clinton was 69 years old at the time of the election, she was either several decades post-menopause or a true medical marvel. Aside from the obvious lack of understanding of the female reproductive system lies the misogyny at the heart of stupid sexism: the implication that a woman who does get periods (as most women do) would be unable to perform her duties because she’s moody is just downright insulting. Letting stupid sexism slide by framing it as plain old ignorance does women everywhere a disservice and reduces them to their bodily functions. We don’t tell male politicians that their testosterone makes them unfit for office. Every single woman running for office deserves the same respect and reverence–and that precludes talking about their periods.
Subliminal sexism is the kind of sexism that’s packaged as a compliment or a joke–little secret messages that quietly suggest to women they aren’t quite equal. Subliminal sexism often takes shape when a female politician has just achieved something great. Maybe she just gave the State of the Union response or became the first woman to win a presidential debate. Then turn on the TV and listen as pundits comment on the woman’s “shrill” voice, on how pretty she looked or how she came across like a scolding schoolteacher. Other times, they’ll discuss whether she’s a bad mom for leaving her kids at home to campaign. All of these topics, on the surface seemingly harmless, are incredibly detrimental to women trying to gain credibility and respect among a sea of men. Instead of being blatant, loud misogyny, subliminal sexism sends quiet messages to the audience that women somehow don’t belong. This tactic is effective because it’s subtle.
Stereotype Sexism is one of the types that we haven’t seen much of because it needs multiple women to work and there’s usually only one woman running for president in any given year. However, as more women jump into the race for 2020, we’ll likely see this type of sexism more. A classic non-political example of this is the Jennifer Aniston-Angelina Jolie rivalry of the early 2000s; Aniston was cast as the innocent wronged woman and Jolie as the irresistible temptress who lured Brad Pitt away. This rivalry is great for magazine sales and clicks but fails to capture the personal nuance and inner life of the women involved. However, stereotype sexism in politics has real consequences for the country. When applied to women in politics it usually goes like this: three women running for president are automatic rivals because of their single common factor (that they’re women) even if they have little else in common. Then, each of the women is assigned a “type” in the media: one might be a ball-busting tough chick, another is crazy and hysterical, and the third woman is sexy but empty-headed. (this 2008 Saturday Night Live skit is a great example). People then only see them through this narrow lens, ignoring their policy proposals and focusing on their performance of womanhood. When we see stereotype sexism in the media, however, we can resist it by simply refusing to play into it. Look at each woman’s policies individually, consider how she would perform as president and compare her to the candidates that have the most similar platforms instead of those with the most similar anatomy.
Recently, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer made her first State of the State speech after last year’s election. She also happened to wear clothes to that speech, inspiring a slew of commentary about her (perfectly professional) dress and the shape of her body. That debacle is a prime example of sartorial sexism–the constant obsession with what women are wearing. Too tight, too loose, too colorful, too boring–women in politics are held to impossible standards that limit them from spreading their message and achieving their policy goals. When so much of the media oxygen is taken up by a fascination with women’s bodies and what covers them, female politicians are reduced to their clothing. As 2020 nears closer, the women running for president will (hopefully) be wearing clothing too, and we should stubbornly refuse to discuss their outfits before their qualifications. Body shape and fashion sense have little to do with one’s ability to govern and yet women in the public eye must spend inordinate time and money creating perfectly curated wardrobes so they can be seen as respectable while their male colleagues throw on the same suit each day. By refusing to engage in sartorial sexism, we can instead place the focus on what women in power are saying and doing, not what they’re wearing.
Women running for office will face innumerable sexist attacks. Instead of accepting it as part of the game, voters need to demand accountability. Sexism in any form does not belong in campaigns for those who seek the world’s most powerful job. Women can be nurturing, fashionable, tough, kind, loud and as strong as men. For now, consider the words of Governor Whitmer herself: “Boys have teased me about my curves since 5th grade. My mom said, “hold your head high and don’t let it bother you.”