Sexism And The Coverage Of Women In Politics

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It is not a surprise to many of us women that many of the men who shaped the debate over Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations--Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Glenn Thrush, Matt Lauer--have since been accused of multiple acts of sexual harassment and improprieties with female co-workers. As Jill Filipovic wrote for The New York Times:

Many of the male journalists who stand accused of sexual harassment were on the forefront of covering the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Matt Lauer interviewed Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump in an official “commander-in-chief forum” for NBC. He notoriously peppered and interrupted Mrs. Clinton with cold, aggressive, condescending questions hyper-focused on her emails, only to pitch softballs at Mr. Trump and treat him with gentle collegiality a half-hour later. Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose set much of the televised political discourse on the race, interviewing other pundits, opining themselves and obsessing over the electoral play-by-play. Mr. Rose, after the election, took a tone similar to Mr. Lauer’s with Mrs. Clinton — talking down to her, interrupting her, portraying her as untrustworthy. Mr. Halperin was a harsh critic of Mrs. Clinton, painting her as ruthless and corrupt, while going surprisingly easy on Mr. Trump. The reporter Glenn Thrush, currently on leave from The New York Times because of sexual harassment allegations, covered Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign when he was at Newsday and continued to write about her over the next eight years for Politico.

A pervasive theme of all of these men’s coverage of Mrs. Clinton was that she was dishonest and unlikable. These recent harassment allegations suggest that perhaps the problem wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton was untruthful or inherently hard to connect with, but that these particular men hold deep biases against women who seek power instead of sticking to acquiescent sex-object status.

A month ago, Rebecca Traister wrote in New York magazine that with the flood of sexual harassment charges, “we see that the men who have had the power to abuse women’s bodies and psyches throughout their careers are in many cases also the ones in charge of our political and cultural stories.” With the Lauer accusations, this observation has come into sharper focus on one particular picture: the media sexism that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss.


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And it's not only Hillary Clinton, but women throughout the media, as former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson pointed out. How different would the narrative have been if women had not only been in the executive offices, but in front of the camera rather than these men? How different would the nation be right now if the debate wasn't shaped by men who felt entitled to treat the women they worked with as sexual objects?

Lauren Duca, who has been doing some of the most incisive political writing of the last year in, of all places, Teen Vogue, credits Hillary Clinton for her awakening of how deeply embedded this distrust of women seeking office can go.

In high school, four years before I discovered feminism I was excited about Hillary’s 2008 run. My Fox News–watching parents informed me that she was corrupt and mumbled some conspiracy theory about a dead guy in the woods. A teacher told me I liked her only because she was a woman. I was told these things were true.

In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Hillary writes about the ways her public narrative has been distorted by sexism. It’s striking to confront the burden that she has had to bear under the weight of these falsified personae for three decades. It’s striking to hear firsthand her most egregious experiences of misogyny as we are told ad nauseam to stop playing “the woman card” in her defense.

Zooming out on Hillary’s 2016 loss reveals the broader contours of women’s oppression. We’re told that sexism is something we are dreaming up, that the women’s movement is unnecessary, or unsavory, or both. Even faced with the mind-numbingly obvious role that sexism played in the 2016 election, we are still parsing the extent to which Hillary’s every flaw must be cataloged and examined. This bullsh*t buffet truly never ends.

It took me years to unpack the lies I’d been told about feminism and about Hillary. Gender inequality was so aggressively denied in the 2016 campaign, it was easy to lose sight of the most concrete examples. For me, the most grounding and concise description came from Rebecca Traister, who asked, during a panel at Rutgers University in spring 2017, “If we only have a problem with Hillary Clinton, not with women, why is she the only woman who has ever gotten this far?”

I don't know that we would come to this place of reckoning and holding men to account for things we women have been dealing with and working around since time immemorial if Hillary Clinton hadn't lost. I think it broke a lot of women to see that even with so many obstacles and smears thrown at her, even getting more votes than any white man in American history, there were still just enough Americans who would rather have a self-admitted sexual assaulter, adulterous, pathologically lying, willfully ignorant and woefully unprepared man than a woman who was arguably more experienced than any candidate in memory. It's an old trope that a woman has to be twice as prepared to get half as much credit as a man, and here, the American electorate proved that to be true.

And we weren't going to keep letting things slide, to let things pass to get by as we've done for so long. So we're in a stage of calling out the behavior that has diminished and demeaned us, that has limited or even ended our careers. Because while we talk about payouts for sexual harassment suits, there's a larger cost of lost potential that we don't speak of:

[B]uried in the cringe-worthy tales of unwanted tongue kissing, awkward come-ons, and untied bathrobes is the fact that the abuse has disrupted the careers of the men’s alleged victims, too. Unlike the accused, most of these women didn’t lose their jobs involuntarily. Rather, after experiencing the alleged harassment or assault, they quit their jobs, leave their chosen industry altogether, or come away from the encounter with their ambition crushed.
[..]
There’s a direct line to be drawn between alleged workplace sexual harassment and women quitting or questioning their jobs—and it goes beyond these recent anecdotes.

A study published in May by researchers at the Oklahoma State University, University of Minnesota, and University of Maine found that women who were sexually harassed were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who were not harassed.

And this goes beyond the federal government, or the news industry, or the entertainment industry. This is the case in academia, in science and research, in publishing, in service industries. It is NOT a partisan issue.

But imagine all the contributions women could have made to all those fields, how different this country would have been, if they had felt comfortable staying in fields they were pursuing rather than leaving them due to toxic masculinity.

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