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How the long history of sexist political coverage hurts democracy
Sexist media coverage of female politicians is far from new, but some experts say it's getting noticeably better. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Long before Hillary Clinton was nicknamed The Hildebeest (sic) or Sarah Palin was labeled Caribou Barbie, the political press called Victoria Woodhull Mrs. Satan.

The first woman to run for president, Woodhull's chances were dismal by any measure. She and her suffragist supporters couldnt even vote when she challenged incumbent Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.

That didnt stop the media from demonizing Woodhull, a member of the suffragist-era Equal Rights Party and from Ohio.

A prominent Harpers Weekly political cartoon depicted Woodhull with black, leathery devil wings, the caption reading, Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!

An 1872 column in the Arizona Sentinel called Woodhull a stench in the nostrils of all virtuous women and pure men, while the Daily Globe in St. Paul, Minnesota, was more succinct, calling her queen of the prostitutes.

What made Woodhull so unpresidential to her detractors? She was divorced and had been married off at age 15 to a man who cheated on her. Her platform called for an end to the double standard of women being ostracized for divorcing their husbands for infidelity. Her movement was dubbed free love, and it was quickly oversimplified in the press as advocating for promiscuity.

Woodhulls treatment in the 1872 media isnt so different from the way political pundits and reporters talk about female politicians nowadays, argues South Dakota State University professor Teri Finneman, author of Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s2000s: From Lunatic Woodhull to Polarizing Palin.

We have made some progress, and were much more aware now, but we havent made as much progress as one would expect in nearly 150 years, Finneman said.

As Clinton inches closer to a likely Democratic presidential nomination, her qualifications arent the only things the media has questioned. Since announcing this, her second run for Americas highest office, Clinton has been criticized for things many media analysts consider sexist. Most notably, renowned Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward accused Clinton of being too loud, and MSNBCs Joe Scarborough singled out Clinton on Twitter for not smiling following a string of primary victories in March.

The problem of female politicians being treated differently isnt restricted to news outlets. As news website The Establishment reported in March, the rise of female politicians Clinton, Palin, Elizabeth Warren and Condoleezza Rice has led to a nasty new phenomenon: Election porn, and gender equality activist and author Jaclyn Friedman told the magazine is specifically designed to degrade and erode confidence in powerful women.

Though perhaps less pointed, Finneman thinks modern political coverage of female political candidacy is just as sexist at it was in Woodhulls day, and its harmful for democracy.

We as a nation are proud of being a democracy, but when this type of gendered coverage happens, it has a chilling effect on people who might otherwise run, Finneman said. How true to democracy is that, really? How many qualified people are not running because they dont want to face these gender stereotypes?

The problem of novelty

In 2013, Texas A&M associate communications professor Johanna Dunaway published a study examining media coverage of political campaigns involving men and women. Dunaway hoped to show that media discussion around female candidates seldom involved political opinions and more often revolved around some aspect of femininity.

If the agenda is all about what people look like or the differences between men and women instead of their stances, voters get duped into caring about things that arent about the issues, Dunaway said. Were cynical enough about politics these days. The last thing we need is headlines about whether female candidates should be wearing pantsuits vs. skirts.

She found when women ran for office, the media referred to matters of appearance, personality quirks and questioned viability more often than issues or political stance than when the race was just between male candidates. That didnt surprise Dunaway, but the fact the media didn't seem to be intentional in its sexist language did.

Dunaway thinks much of the coverage that qualified as sexist in the study wasnt an indication of bias. Rather, Dunaway thinks the novelty of a female holding office compels the press to ask different questions without realizing how sexist they are. Because theres never been a woman in the White House, nearly anything seems up for discussion, even if its something the press wouldnt ask a man.

Its more about what people think of as newsworthy, Dunaway said. Despite the fact that a lot of women have held office, its still a novelty in a lot of places, so theres a pervasive question of viability, of who this person is. The viability framing comes up more for women, but its not even necessarily a deliberate bias, its an unfortunate circumstance.

That happens even for female candidates the press seems to like.

Finneman says theres evidence of well-meaning sexist language dating back to Americas first female elected officials. Take Montana Rep. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. In the early 20th century, Finneman says western states, like Montana, were progressive hotbeds and Rankin was beloved by both her colleagues and the media, with little criticism plaguing her road to public office.

But you still saw headlines like, Congresswoman No. 1 cook and seamstress, (and) there were whole articles written about the color of her hair, Finneman said. They were praising her, but she was a member of Congress and they still described her as an adornment, you still had this kind of belittlement.

Because Rankin was the first of her kind made the press and public want to know everything about her, and that is why they put her under the microscope in a way that wouldnt have made sense for her male contemporaries. Rankins very existence in Congress made everything about her newsworthy and opened her up to intense public examination, Finneman said.

The distinction for female candidates today is the novelty of being a woman in politics is often a vehicle for criticism and not a newsworthy detail about who these women are.

Where something like Rankins hair once made for a whimsical, humanizing detail about a historically significant woman, such aesthetics are now used to question character and likability think of the 2008 press dissection of Palins Saks Fifth Avenue wardrobe or the press questioning of why Clinton prefers pantsuits to skirts. Small double standards like questioning a female candidates fashion choices a characteristic seldom applied to male candidates can feed into bigger ones. Finneman offered the example of how parenting style supposedly informs a female candidates viability and character a charge leveled specifically at Palin when her unmarried teenage daughter became pregnant during the 2008 campaign.

Theres a bind that women face now: When you are an older woman with experience, youre old, past prime, Finneman said. Or, if youre a younger woman, as Palin was, its why arent you with your children? These things make it seem that there is no good time for a woman to run for office.

Or theres the stereotype that because women tend to be more emotional than men, they may have trouble making decisions of state requiring objective, unemotional thinking. That creates a double standard female politicians still struggle with, argues Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at media watchdog group Media Matters for America. If a female candidate is too emotional, shes weak; if shes not emotional enough, shes a ruthless ice queen.

(A female candidate) is supposed to be tough but not cold, warm but not sentimental, bold but not emotional, Boehlert said. If Hillary Clinton said 1/100th of some of the things Donald Trump has said or yelled at people like Chris Christie has, her political career would be over. But for a man, hes a straight shooter.

Major strides

Although experts say media coverage of female political candidates is still sexist a century after the first female congresswoman was elected, they also say things have improved dramatically.

The proof is in how Clinton has been covered this time around compared to her 2008 campaign.

I think people dont want to look back at how bad it was in 2008. There was nothing (pundits) couldnt say about Hillary Clinton in an offensive and sexist way that would cause them any problem, Boehlert said, offering examples of media commentators saying Clinton made them feel they needed to cross their legs around her and others calling her a stereotypical b-word. In eight years, theres still an obvious double standard, but people have become more aware of how you should conduct yourself.

Finneman agreed, saying 2008 was a low point in political coverage that sparked needed change, which has led to more articles calling out sexist language about female candidates this time around.

Now, when Sean Hannity tells Clinton to smile or Chris Matthews objectifies Melania Trump, its not just Twitter users or bloggers calling them out its mainstream outlets like NPR, CNN, Vox or The New York Times.

Finneman and Dunaway think diversity within journalism has helped in the intervening eight years since a woman ran for the White House.

When you have more women in newsrooms and more women editors, the way stories are framed is probably a lot different, Dunaway said.

The good news is, whats happening in politics and in newsrooms is likely informing gender norms that predicated sexist media coverage to begin with: as more women win and hold office, the less this kind of media coverage will be tolerated and the less people will think sexism is OK.

The best hope for equality is familiarity and boredom, when this isnt special anymore, Dunaway said. The best way to make sure that happens is for women to keep running.
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