House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Congress's longest-serving woman, make fists for Baltimore sisterhood. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“If fewer of us are willing to take and throw a punch,” she writes, “is that so horrible? In one way, yes — because the result is that we remain chronically underrepresented.”

Women politicians walk a thin line: They have to be both tough and nurturing, strong and approachable, feminine but not sexy. When they come under attack — and specifically, sexist attack — the advice they have long gotten is to shrug it off and move on.

One of the consultants who had long counseled her clients to do that is pollster Celinda Lake, who discovered when she was doing some research for the Name It, Change It project in 2010 that this was precisely the wrong approach.

Here is what happened:

Lake’s firm called up 800 likely voters and described two hypothetical congressional candidates: Jane Smith, a state legislator with a sterling resume, a picture-perfect family and a reputation as a bipartisan reformer, and Dan Jones, another legislator similarly situated.

Women and non-college graduates favored Jane; other voters were divided.

Then she introduced some hypothetical news stories about them. Half the group heard stories that referred to Jane as a “mean girl” and an “ice queen” and that focused on things like her hairstyle. There was also some over-the-top sexism, including references to Jane as a prostitute.

Lake wrote: “No surprise, support for her plummeted, even with a mild sexism injected into the debate. But the surprising finding was that Jane was able to win back that support when she called out the language.”

It turns out voters actually want a woman to fight back, which is a good lesson to remember in an era when misogynistic language has become more commonplace and acceptable as part of our political discourse.

Karen Tumulty is a Post staff writer on the National Desk. Follow her on Twitter at @KTumulty.