Women's groups target sexism in campaigns

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

The list includes the radio talk show host who called a female senator a "prostitute" for cutting a deal to benefit her state, the male challenger who referred to his female rival "attractive" and "probably a good mother," and the TV host who noted that the candidate's wife looked like an angry woman.

Those comments and others have been collected by a group of advocates for women running for office who are monitoring what they consider a "highly toxic" media environment that makes it difficult for female candidates.

The effort to track sexist comments and put pressure on advertisers that help bankroll the media figures responsible for some of the remarks comes as women campaign in several high-profile races this year, including for governorships in South Carolina and California as well as Senate seats.

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Much attention has been paid to the tough races and hard-charging campaigns that female candidates nationwide have run this year, and commentators had begun to say that women had turned a corner - dishing it and taking it. But women have won relatively few close primaries, and some of those races were fought on the uneven territory of gender politics, said Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women and Politics Institute.

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.

The list, which was started several years ago, includes a comment by conservative radio host G. Gordon Liddy about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: "Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when she's menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate," Liddy said on his show. "That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then."

The women's groups also point to a quote in a Wall Street Journal article about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's run for vice president. A liberal voter asks, referring to Palin's infant son and teenage daughter: "Who's watching the baby? And what kind of nurturing is going on in that 17-year-old's life if she's pregnant?"

The comments were only lightly condemned, said Jehmu Greene, president of the Women's Media Center, and they keep coming.

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

Those effects have been measured in research by American University's Women and Politics Institute, Lawless said. Her research has shown that women are less likely than men to consider running for office because they perceive an unfair political environment. The United States ranks 86th in the world for representation of women in political office. Women make up 51 percent of the nation's population but hold only 17 percent of the seats in Congress and 24 percent of the seats in state legislatures. Those numbers frustrate groups that have tried for years to get more women in the political pipeline.

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