Wielding ‘Gender Card,’ Women’s Groups Campaign Against ‘Political Sexism’

Few would doubt that racism and sexism are handled differently in politics and the media, but how, exactly?

By Michelle Chen Sep 02, 2010

A new watchdog campaign is emerging to stamp out sexist attitudes and stereotypes in electoral politics. Perhaps inspired by the sub rosa misogyny that surfaced during the 2008 presidential campaigns, the Women’s Media Center and other feminist groups want to mobilize in direct response to sexist attacks that undermine women’s political presence, the Washington Post reports.

The Women’s Campaign Forum, Women’s Media Center and Political Parity plan to spend $250,000 on research and outreach for the initiative, which they have dubbed "Name It, Change It." The idea is to call out a range of issues – everything from what the groups considers an unfair focus on women’s clothing and family responsibilities to profane name-calling. The money will pay for an online advertising campaign, spoof videos and a smartphone application that will allow users to report sexist comments in the media.

But the clincher is the Post’s quote from Women’s Media Center President Jehmu Greene, evoking a tension that threaded through the Clinton-Obama primary race:

Sexism against women in the media has become normalized and accepted in a way that they would not be if the comments were racist…It dramatically affects women candidates.

Few would doubt that racism and sexism are handled differently in the media, but how, exactly? Subtle racial slights and sexist overtones are both prevalent in mainstream reporting, and as social issues, racism and sexism are both frequently glossed over or oversimplified in clumsy coverage. But does this campaign, dubbed "Name It, Change It," suggest that racism in mainstream politics receives greater scrutiny than sexism in the same context? As candidates Obama and Clinton went head-to-head in the presidential race, there was a palpable sense of injustice, or at least discomfort, about how the "race card" was playing out against the "gender card." Recalling the legacy of a pioneering woman of color in politics, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem wrote in a 2008 New York Times op-ed:

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects "only" the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more "masculine" for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no "right" way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what. I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

So wither the "coalition of outsiders" in the age of Obama? Do women’s groups feel that it’s high time for their struggle to be vindicated now that the man in the White House has, at least on the surface, crossed a historic colorline? Is racism really easier to call out than sexism in political races? And aren’t we doing both struggles a disservice, as Steinem suggests, by framing them on an either-or divide? The success of the "Name it, Change it" campaign might depend on whether activists recognize that, on an increasingly diverse political landscape, the more narrowly a problem is named, the smaller the potential for real change.