Jessica Valenti is the author of four books on feminism and a contributing editor at the Nation.
America’s first female president, brought to you by . . . sexism!
It’s been six years since a heckler yelled “Iron my shirt!” at a Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign event shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Since MSNBC’s Chris Matthews called Clinton “Nurse Ratched” and commented on her “cackle.” And since a guest on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show lamented that a female president would be undermined by “PMS and mood swings.”
If Clinton runs again, it’s doubtful that we’ll see the same level of sexist vitriol against her. And that makes me, well, a little sad. If the misogyny flows as freely in 2016 as it did during Clinton’s first presidential run, the Republicans are doomed. They’re already in trouble with female voters, and it wouldn’t take much to erode that standing further. So bring on the Todd Akins, the “life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one” T-shirts, the knee-jerk Hillary haters. This time around, it will only make her stronger.
The world of gender politics has changed in the past six years. The sexist swipes that were normal then won’t fly in a post-“war on women” culture. Feminism has hit a tipping point. Stories such as the rape in Steubenville, Ohio , or Mike Huckabee’s comments on women’s libido and “Uncle Sugar” previously went unremarked outside of feminist circles; now, they’re up for widespread public debate.
This month, Time featured a story on Clinton’s possible 2016 run, with Clinton represented on the magazine’s cover as a giant high heel trampling a tiny man. “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” the headline asked. The image, which played on old stereotypes reducing women to shoes and clothes, elicited some outrage but also much collective eye-rolling, because it felt like a throwback to another era. Slate’s Amanda Hess called it “sexist and hacky”; the Huffington Post and Marie Claire also denounced it. Mommy blogs got mad, too. “Why, when we’re talking about a professional, powerful woman,” Maria Guido asked on Mommyish.com, “do we oftentimes default to an image of her trampling over men to get to the top? . . . Women read your magazine, you realize this, right?”
Perhaps the biggest change surrounding women’s responses to political misogyny comes from the explosion of social media. Women on Twitter and Facebook shared their ire over the Time cover minutes after its release — much as they do every time something truly offensive happens, whether it’s objectionable news media coverage, a politician’s blunder or a new anti-woman law. But, unlike most Internet outrage, feminist Internet outrage gets results. And it will give the Clinton campaign — and Hillary supporters — a weapon they did not have last time around.
Breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for example, had to reverse its 2012 decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood within just three days, thanks to more than 1.3 million angry tweets and thousands of Facebook comments. (Planned Parenthood raised $3 million over the controversy.) The same year, online activism also brought down Virginia’s proposed transvaginal ultrasound mandate for women seeking abortions. Feminists started a hashtag campaign on Twitter calling it “state rape,” which resulted in widespread media attention; the legislation was eventually amended.
This social-media power wasn’t available to feminists during Clinton’s first run. Three months after she announced her candidacy in 2007, Twitter broke 60,000 tweets a day; now there are more than 500 million tweets a day from more than 200 million active users. Tumblr was barely a year old in 2008, and Facebook had just hit its first 100 million users. Today, it has more than 1 billion.
Online takedowns of misogyny play a huge part in women’s political lives — and their votes. Just recall Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and his comments about “legitimate rape.” Or the conservative smearing of Sandra Fluke after she was not allowed to testify at a House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control. Or when Rick Santorum donor Foster Friess suggested to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that “the gals” could just put aspirin “between their knees” as a form of birth control.
All these incidents drove the “war on women” rhetoric into the mainstream and influenced women’s votes in the 2012 election. A Gallup poll of 12 key swing states released shortly before the election showed that 60 percent of women said government policies on birth control would be extremely or very important in influencing their vote, and majorities of both men and women said Obama would “better handle” that issue.
“Every 2016 campaign will be run in an entirely new landscape, and that’s due in large part to the gains women have made politically since 2008, especially the gains made in 2012,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock told me. “Republicans voiced their extreme and offensive views, and voters, particularly women voters, responded with one of the largest gender gaps in our nation’s history.”
Today, if someone tried to start a Facebook group called “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich” — in 2008, this group had more than 40,000 members — it’s hard to imagine it would last long. (In fact, thanks to an online feminist campaign, Facebook now bans gender-based hate speech.) And if an opponent laughed it off when asked “How do we beat the bitch?,” as John McCain did at a 2007 event in South Carolina, he or she would be toast.
No doubt, there will be a tremendous amount of sexism lobbed at Clinton if she runs for president. It just won’t be as explicit or gleeful as in years past. At least, that’s what Republicans are hoping. The GOP is so worried about further alienating female voters that it is sending its candidates to classes on how to talk to women — or, more accurately, how not to talk to them. The anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List put together a training initiative last year for GOP candidates after the litany of controversial statements on women’s health, and, according to Politico, the National Republican Congressional Committee is having meetings with Republican aides “to make sure there are no Todd Akin-style gaffes” in 2014.
Remedial how-not-to-be-sexist classes will take the GOP only so far. When misogyny is part of your ideology, it’s hard to muzzle. But given the extra precautions, it’s likely that the misogyny directed at Clinton will be more sly than straightforward.
Much in the way the right race-baited its base in the last presidential election — Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp president” comes to mind — Clinton won’t be attacked directly for being a woman. Instead we’ll see more subtle swipes about her emotions and temperament, like the headline after the Benghazi hearing: “Clinton explodes with rage.”
We’re getting a glimpse of that approach now with the attacks on Texas gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis. Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News published an article suggesting that Davis pursued and married her older husband for money. Her now ex-husband, Jeff Davis, told Slater: “It was ironic. I made the last payment [on her Harvard Law School loan], and it was the next day she left.” Never mind that Wendy Davis was a well-paid lawyer when she left. The profile also included a quote from an anonymous former colleague who said, “She’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way.”
Slater didn’t need to call Davis a gold-digging bad mom — he just implied it. And now right-wing conservatives are picking up the story line. Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com and a Fox News contributor, tweeted, “So Abortion Barbie had a Sugar Daddy Ken.”
The good news for Clinton is that it doesn’t much matter if the sexism directed at her is tacit or explicit, or if it comes directly from politicians or just conservative talking heads. Because no amount of messaging or training or misdirection will change the fact that the GOP’s disdain for women’s rights isn’t a matter of language or talking points, but of policy. Even if Republicans keep their mouths shut, their platform’s attacks on reproductive rights and birth-control coverage, and the disdain for pay equity and anti-violence legislation, will do as much damage as any gaffe.
Of course, feminists can’t rely entirely on the GOP shooting itself in the foot. We have to continue doing what we’ve recently succeeded at: exposing the damaging impact Republican policies have on women.
Still, something tells me that conservatives won’t be able to help themselves. After all, the New York Times reported last summer that Republicans are planning an anti-Hillary strategy that will “focus a spotlight on Mrs. Clinton’s age.”
I can’t wait.