Listen to the audio version of this post here.
As the speculation intensified—”Who will Joe Biden choose as his running mate?”—so did the endless sexist blather.
Whoever your favorite is, or if your own pick is None of the Above, you’ve no doubt heard the critiques from all quarters.
“She’s too ambitious.” “She’s way too opinionated.” “Too self-promoting—it’s so obvious she wants the job.”
And of course, that favorite of women everywhere, “She should smile more.”
By definition, anyone seeking political office is ambitious. It’s a good bet they have opinions. Strong ones, even. And if they didn’t want the job, they wouldn’t be in the running, would they?
And as for that insistence on smiling, we’re talking about candidates for Vice President of the United States, not prom queen.
Maureen Dowd wrote about this in the New York Times, quoting her own article from 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro made history as Walter Mondale’s running mate.
Mondale’s campaign guys were rude and condescending. His opponent’s press secretary called her “bitchy.” And the beloved Barbara Bush cutely referred to Ferraro as “a word that rhymes with rich.
It’s depressing how little has changed since the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost in 49 states.
Ferraro reflected at the end of the campaign that she was “not prepared for the depth of the fury, the bigotry, and the sexism my candidacy would unleash.”
Some 30 years later, the free-floating misogyny is magnified by social media.
Research on the Democratic primary campaign found the female candidates faced more attacks from right-wing news sites and the fake news sites. (I mean the real fakes, not the mainstream media labeled fake in White House press conferences. And yes, I’m aware how odd it is to write the phrase “real fakes.”)
The Wilson Center’s Lucina Di Meco summed it all up in “#She Persisted: Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World.”
Conclusion: “The social media narratives about female candidates are more negative and mostly concerned their character, as opposed to their policies.”
California Congresswoman Jackie Speier highlighted the report during a hearing involving social media bigwigs, objecting to the way women in politics are characterized. “They’re untrustworthy, they’re emotional or they’re dumb.”
Besides another reason to be annoyed—or outraged—what does this mean for us?
If all this business about charm and modesty and smiling matters so much when it comes to evaluating a possible candidate for vice president, don’t you think it enters into assessments of the rest of us?
It’s worth a hard look at the way we treat women in politics, presidential or otherwise. Because it’s still the case that age-old expectations based on sex underlie the way men and women evaluate female candidates.
Whether you want to be the Vice President of the USA or the Vice President of HR, it’s a pretty good bet that gender enters into the selection process. Although perhaps in less overt ways than it used to.
Time-traveling again, Maureen Dowd did post-mortem interviews after 1984’s landslide loss for the Democrats. The things she heard from women shocked me.
”There’s a type of subconscious envy, or maybe mistrust, of a woman who has succeeded where many others have not. So instead of aggressively working to help her reach a position of prominence, we begin at an elementary level to attack. It’s a basic flaw in women’s behavior, which is to be bitchy.”
Then there was this:
“I think women in general are weak. I know that sounds awful. But we women know we have our faults. We look at ourselves and think ‘I couldn’t handle it so I don’t know if she could, either.’”
Oh my. I’d hope we see things differently now, or at least say things differently now. Then I take a look at my Twitter feed and I’m not so sure.
This is one reason Rep. Speier told the Washington Post she never reads the things people Tweet or post about her. Sounds like a smart choice, doesn’t it?
There’s one more thing we should do.
As they watch what’s already being said about the women Biden has considered, his team is also preparing for what will be said as we get closer to November.
No need to recap here all the insults the president has lobbed at his past female opponents, reporters, and others who’ve irked him in one way or another.
Biden’s campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dixon told the team everyone on the campaign will be expected to defend the vice-presidential nominee against the inevitable ugly, sexist attacks.
Democratic researchers are looking into sexist memes in social media groups, so they can be traced when they’re unleashed for a wider audience.
Women’s political groups are warning news media about their typical scrutiny and coverage of female candidates. They’re asking the people who run newsrooms to avoid some of their usual stereotypes.
- “Reporting on a woman’s ambition as though the very nature of seeking political office, or any higher job for that matter is not a mission of ambition.”
- “Reporting on whether a woman is liked (a subjective metric at best) as though it is news, when the “likeability” of men is never considered a legitimate news story.”
- “Reporting on a woman’s looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair is sexist news coverage unless the same analysis is applied to every candidate.”
As Congresswoman Speier says, “We need to surround her and be there to promote her. It’s our job to be the flank.”
Back in the business world, can we “be the flank” for our female colleagues? Our clients and customers? And maybe even our competitors?
I think we can. And we should.
I’ve got your back. And I hope you’ll post a comment about solidarity in the face of sexist rhetoric in politics and in our business lives.
We still have a long way to go, but recognizing sexism and professionally calling it out is important – and get ready, this will be a marathon. Last night on Chicago local tv news, the political commentator used the phrase “too ambitious” to discuss Kamala Harris. The woman of color anchor immediately stopped him and asked, “Would you have ever said that a male VP candidate was too ambitious?” The brief exchange that followed was great role-modeling for the viewing audience. The more we do course corrections on these microaggressions, the more, I hope, we will see positive change.
That “too ambitious” thing just frosts me, Paula. Where would we find anyone in politics who’s not ambitious? And why would we want to?
Thanks for an example of responding to this nonsense in the moment. I think you’re right that making those corrections along the way will be useful.
Ah Catherine, what a fortuitously timed article full of salient points and important references from recent history to put our times in context. Now that we know it’s Harris we are witnessing more of the same with a bit of racism thrown in for kicks since she is mixed race. I’m thrilled that these conversations–and the one your other commenter referenced about the Chicago tv anchors–are happening. Even knowing that it will get uglier which makes me angry and sad for Kamala and all ambitious women but I’m comforted that there are signs the world is changing whether it’s race, gender, sexual identity, etc.
Yes, there are signs the world is changing, Greg. And then there’s my friend who’s discouraged by the meme her high school buddy posted, attributing Kamala Harris’s success to prowess with her mouth. Not SPEAKING prowess.
It’s hard not to be discouraged.
What fascinated me in putting together this piece before the nomination was announced was knowing that the same criticisms would be lobbed at whatever woman Biden chose. There’s a sort of catalogue of generic gender-based bashing they pull out for occasions like this.
I’m eager to see who fights back. And how.
You are spot on, as always. YES we must be the flank. Thank you for articulating so well and being a great example of women supporting women. Onward!
I do think, Kelly or at least I hope, that more of us support each other now. The things those women said about Geraldine Ferraro were horrifying.
Spot on. Enjoy listening Thanks for including your audio option. Reminds me of your radio days!
I’m so glad you dig it, Karen. I should have done this audio thing years ago. I thought it was too hard, I’m not good with technology, I don’t know how, blahblahblah. I finally discovered there’s something on my laptop called “Voice Recorder.” You click on a button and talk. Huh. That wasn’t hard.
There’s a lesson in that about how I (we?) stop short of our potential.