Sexism in politics is not a Republican problem—it’s everybody’s problem.
By this point, the “Greatest Country In The World” scene from HBO’s news drama The Newsroom has become the defining moment of the show: a clearly frustrated Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), after being a noncontroversial host comfortable with dominating the ratings while not pissing everyone off, just snaps – going on a tangent about everything from the Tea Party to poverty to the state of the nation. The scene went viral and is still making the rounds on social media to this day, even as The Newsroom continues a descent into a liberal’s wet dream that could be easily realized by picking up the remote and changing the channel to MSNBC.
Recently, another political drama gave us a powerful moment of truth scene – except this one felt real, and borne out of sincere frustration. Scandal, the hit political thriller on ABC starring Kerry Washington, had a scene where Lisa Kudrow’s character, who is running for president, takes the “women can’t be president” argument and groundpounds it into submission. She takes on a governor who believes she doesn’t have the “balls” to be president, a political system that thinks women are too emotional to be in powerful roles, and even a media that insists on reminding Americans that she’s a woman – not a Congresswoman or soldier.
This scene has stuck with me because it’s not something that I would expect to happen at this moment in time. Anyone could see a frustrated Chris Matthews give a McAvoy-like rant; at this point, for a politician who has been on the receiving end of sexism such as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and noted stateswomen such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, railing about misogyny in the political system and offensive media coverage would be political suicide.
When a woman runs for major political office – or is in the spotlight at all, for that matter – they can expect a wave of criticism reserved only for women, because the media simply doesn’t cover men and women the same way. A male strong leader is just that – a leader, while a female counterpart is a “bitch”. Any displays of emotion serve to confirm fears that women are unfit to make major decisions, while Speaker John Boehner has become visibly emotional numerous times over the course of his career – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Female politicians have to deal with criticism regarding, of all things, wardrobes – remember the story about Sarah Palin’s wardrobe, footed by the RNC, as if the RNC isn’t a private organization funded by donors and not the taxpayers?
Shamefully, women are also often ignored in debates about womens’ rights or reproductive health. Michigan State Senator Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic floor leader, published a great op-ed in the Huffington Post concerning Michigan’s extreme new “rape insurance” law, after she spoke at length about her own sexual assault.
“I’m one of only four women currently serving in the Michigan Senate and to say there’s an “old boys club” mentality in our Capitol Building would be putting it mildly. Yet, as I watched my male colleagues casually sit back, ready to vote on a bill that would have sweeping and damaging impacts on the health of women throughout Michigan without having the decency to even hold a hearing and listen to testimony from those it would hurt most, it was clear that they didn’t want to see the faces of those they were attacking with their vote that day.
Whitmer’s story exemplifies the real problem, and it’s not just one that runs rampant among the right side of the aisle: it’s the “boys’ club”. It’s the idea that has prevailed throughout our history that a bunch of knee slapping dudes who crank out deals in smoky rooms over steak dinners and glasses of bourbon simply get more done. It’s insulting to women – not only politicians, but women in general – who are much more capable than the media and male politicians give them credit for. It’s this kind of “man’s world” nonsense Whitmer describes that may be actually discouraging women from running, even though we have more examples of strong female political leaders now than we ever have before in human history.
The problem of getting fair treatment for women in the political process is not relegated to conservatives. Liberals also need to understand that work to give women equal access to the political system doesn’t end with issues like abortion, and that fair and equal treatment of women, and respect for them in the political spectrum, is not only reserved for women you agree with. Once the double standards that pervade the political arena are dropped, then we can start having real debates based on merit, not on clothes. And if that calls for a Kudrow moment of brutal honesty, then let’s make sure it happens sooner rather than later, so the “boys’ club” can be exposed for the true fraud that it is.