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Women's groups target sexism in campaigns

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; A4

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.

(Complete political coverage on PostPolitics)

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.

Lawless said her research shows that a potential candidate's perceptions of unfairness are shaped by how women who are running in the nation's most challenging and high-profile races are treated by the media. "We have to call attention to the sexism and let pundits know they can't speak this way about candidates because those effects trickle," she said.

Greene said equal treatment for female candidates should be determined by a measure that women's activist Gloria Steinem calls "reversibility." (Steinem and actress Jane Fonda are among the founders of the Women's Media Center.)

"Don't talk about if she's had some plastic surgery unless you're going to talk about the fact that he's had hair plugs," Greene said, explaining Steinem's concept. "Don't talk about if she's a fit mother if you're not going to talk about whether he's a fit father."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who is conducting an online survey this month to determine how voters are affected by sexist commentary directed at female candidates, said most people wrongly assume that comments that deride women because of their gender are a thing of the past.

"Often the candidate feels like it happens in isolation," said Lake, whose research is being funded by the women's groups. "They feel like they just have to take it. There is no accountability in the system right now."

NameItChangeIt.com went up this week, and organizers hope it will become a "sexism emergency response" system, said Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Forum. Bennett, who has run for mayor and Congress, said she was once asked at a forum for mayoral candidates: "Sam, what are your measurements?"

"We have so many women whose seats are in play," Bennett said. "So that they do not have to deal with these references when they happen, we'll deal with them and hopefully mitigate any negative electoral outcome."

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