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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2016

1 - Gender, myth, and reality on the campaign trail


To be a woman running for office in the United States is to face bias, sexism, and discrimination at seemingly every turn. That, at least, is the impression that anyone paying attention to American politics in recent years would come away with.

In February 2014, then-U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann told an interviewer that many voters “aren't ready” for a female president. Bachmann's comments were at least in part a thinly veiled attempt to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton's second bid for the White House. But claims of sexism cross party lines. When Nancy Pelosi was asked in 2008 about Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in that year's presidential primaries, the Democratic Speaker of the House replied that it was partly because Clinton is a woman. “Of course there is sexism,” Pelosi said. “We all know that, but it's a given.” Allyson Schwartz, who lost the 2014 Democratic primary for governor of Pennsylvania, also blamed her defeat on discrimination: “The political pundits, the media, the Harrisburg establishment couldn't believe a woman could serve as governor – couldn't even imagine it.”

Schwartz's swipe at the press is a popular move – even by journalists themselves. Following Clinton's 2008 loss, then-CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric told viewers that “one of the lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media.” Couric saw the tables turned in May 2015 when she asked Carly Fiorina if her uphill battle for the GOP presidential nomination was really just an attempt to grab the vice presidential spot. “Oh, Katie,” Fiorina responded, “would you ask a male candidate that question?” (Couric replied that she would, but more on that later.) Meanwhile, activist Jamia Wilson said in April 2015 that “sexist and misogynist coverage of women candidates is still a sad reality in our media culture.” The advocacy group “Name It. Change It.” noted in a recent report that “Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women.”

The root of the problem, according to these arguments, is that portrayals and assessments of female politicians are unfair – starkly and systematically different than what men experience. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays one of the country's most recognizable female politicians – Veep's Selina Meyer – said that her HBO character's new hairdo was a case of art imitating life.