Rush Limbaugh played “Ding-Dong, the Witch Is Dead” on his show to celebrate Nancy Pelosi’s ouster earlier this week, and this typically boorish moment seemed to crystallize a dismal election climate for women. As the dust clears from the 2010 midterms, one particularly sobering statistic has risen to the surface: for the first time since 1978, women have not made any gains in representation in Washington. In fact, once all the numbers are done being counted, women holding seats in congress and the senate may have actually decreased.
To add to that problem, 2010 saw a record number of Limbaugh-esque sexist attacks against women running for both parties—even two years after the media was called out on its vile treatment of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“It’s a year we saw very vitriolic sexism, and a year women didn’t do so well,” said Pollster Celinda Lake during a press conference on Thursday. And the data Lake compiled shows that like all negative campaigning, sexist smears work on the electorate. Even slightly coded attacks like calling a candidate an ice queen can have a dramatic effect, her research shows, as bad as implying she’s a slut or worse.
But in the middle of this cloud hanging over women’s prospects in D.C, there’s one major silver lining: Lake’s research and now campaign experiences like those of congressional candidate Krystal Ball — who came out swinging when damaging photos of her were leaked by a conservative blog — shows that when women don’t ignore sexist smears, but instead fight back and call them out for what they are, they gain back all the votes they might have lost, and more.
The Women’s Media Center ran a historic media watchdog campaign this season called “Name It, Change It,” which encouraged people to point out and protest sexism in the media. On Thursday, they announced their Would You Say That To Your Mother? Awards for the worst examples they’d come across during the whole campaign season. And they were pretty ugly—enough to compete with Rush Limbaugh.
- The faux-award went to the Boston Herald’s Jill Radsken for an article titled “She’s a great candidate…for a makeover!” consisting entirely of stylists offering suggestions for a Green Party candidate’s wardrobe.
- Another was awarded to Ned Cantwell of the Los Alamos Monitor for deeming the gubernatorial race between two femal candidates full of “bitch-slapping” and “mud-wrestling” and wondering when the candidates would “strip down and get ‘er on.”
- David Letterman won in the TV category for a “Top Ten” item about Nancy Pelosi being found naked in a hotel room with known wife-beater Charlie Sheen.
- The Todd and Tom show on Boston’s WRKO got slammed when the hosts began talking about a State Treasurer Candidate’s “tight little butt” and “banging little body.”
- Virginia Virtucon, a conservative blog, published the now-infamous pictures of candidate Krystal Ball goofing off with her then-husband’s phallic Rudolph nose at a holiday party.
- Gawker published a sordid, anonymous account of a one-night stand with Christine O’Donnell which wasn’t, in fact, a one-night stand, and was full of sexist shading — rather than the hypocrisy calling-out Gawker later hid behind.
- Human Events Blog’s nasty, lowbrow “babes of the DNC” calendar, which mocked and humiliated Democratic lady politicians for not being young and buxom, promising “a feast of wrinkled flesh.”
And this list is just the top of the pyramid. Jessica Wakeman of the Frisky has her own slideshow of awful media sexism that covers and goes beyond the WMC list. As all these examples prove, we still live in a media culture “that values a woman’s shoes over her views,” said Julie Burton of WMC.
In the past, said Sam Bennett, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum—which supports female candidates and teamed up with WMC on “Name It. Change It” — consultants would tell women to ignore the gathering storm brought about by this kind of sleaze-pedaling, and place themselves on a plane above gendered targeting by the media or their opponents.
But thanks to Celinda Lake’s research, women running for office can follow their instincts and fire back. Lake ran a mock election between a female candidate and a male candidate, “Jane and Dan,” and saw that while sexist attacks hurt Jane in the polls, when Jane called those attacks sexist she gained her support back and then some.
Krystal Ball, who ran for congress in Virginia, was thrilled with this research. When those damaging photos of her began to surface, she called Sam Bennett and asked if it was okay to lash back at her critics, or whether she should follow the advice of those around her and hope the scandal would fade out on its own. Bennett presented her with Lake’s research, which gave Ball the go-ahead to follow her gut.
“That [research] gave me the strength and the courage to stand up to the attacks,” she said. “Everyone else said you should ignore it, deny it, don’t respond directly, hopefully it will just go away.” The interviews Ball subsequently gave — in which she admitted to being in the pictures but called their release sexist and asked to be judged on her policies, not her behavior at age 22— “set the tone.” Suddenly the echo chamber story became Ball’s courageous decision to denounce the smears, and she had singlehandedly reframed the conversation. Although she lost the race, she says she’s convinced from what people told her on the campaign trail that she gained votes and admiration for fighting back.
“As long as a women goes to the press and calls those incidents sexist she gains back the votes,” agreed Bennett. “In fact she gets an electoral bounce.”
Why do the same voters who were swayed by sexism change their minds when it’s identified? Because we live in a sexism-saturated media climate, they often don’t realize they’re absorbing a biased message. “They go, oh that’s right, that is sexist,” Bennett explained.
There’s another disadvantage to media sexism. The attention pile-on focused on wacky candidates like the “Mama Grizzlies”—most of whom lost their races—makes it look like women who run tend to lose. But many women in under-the-radar races who were running on solid records didn’t get the attention or money they actually deserve, like Representative Betsy Markey, who only served two years in congress before being defeated.
Bennett added that beyond fighting and containing sexism, the political establishment and the media need to focus on competent, experienced female candidates, not just those who have interesting personal backgrounds (here’s looking at you, Christine O’Donnell). “Women are recruited to run and then not given support to keep those seats,” she said.