Media perpetuates sexism in presidential race

“Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.”

These words appeared in a Jan. 8, 2008 New York Times opinions piece by Gloria Steinem, the well-known feminist activist, endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. In the past, my response to reading this article would likely have been to toss the paper down onto the table and make a dismissive comment about how feminists had already achieved almost all of their objectives. However, some of the events of this primary season have made me realize that my past view was naive and almost entirely wrong.

My recognition of sexism’s role in the election began in January. At the beginning of the semester, politics was the talk of the town, and I started debating the relative merits of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with fellow Yalies. During one discussion about Sen. Clinton’s merits, I extolled the virtues of experience in a chief executive. The response I received was, “Yeah, but she’s such a bitch. And a skank!” Shocked, I could not respond. Since then, many of my conversations with groups of male acquaintances about Sen. Clinton have ended with the comment, “Oh, she’s a bitch,” followed by a lot of chuckling, and my glancing around, wondering what exactly was so very funny.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “bitch” as, “1. A female canine animal, especially a dog. 2. Offensive. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.” It defines “skank” as a woman who is “disgusting or vulgar.”

Although I personally support Sen. Clinton, I totally expect, and indeed welcome, people to disagree with my opinion. What bothers me, and what should upset a lot of people out there, especially women, is the manner in which people do so. As the first serious female presidential candidate in our country’s 232-year history, Senator Clinton is taking a lot of shots that male candidates are able to avoid. People frequently insult political candidates whom they do not favor. What is completely wrong, however, is to attack a candidate based on their gender, an innate characteristic over which he or she has no control. This sort of criticism is comparable to disliking Sen. Obama simply because he is black or, in 2000, to looking askance at Sen. Joseph Lieberman because he is Jewish. Sen. Clinton has served as one of New York’s senators since 2000 and was first lady for eight years prior to that. She deserves more respect than to be summarily dismissed with sexist insults.

Unfortunately, my conversations here at Yale seem to be indicative of the way that a surprisingly large number of Americans view Sen. Clinton. First, take Facebook. Groups related to Hillary Clinton abound. However, among these groups, some of the most popular are: “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” currently with 38,853 members, and “Life’s a bitch, why vote for one? Anti-Hillary ‘08,” which has several different incarnations, one with 16,296 members. Apparently, more people think it would be proper for Sen. Clinton to make them a sandwich than to be president, as “Make Me a Sandwich” easily outpaces “Hillary Clinton for President — One Million Strong,” by over 15,000 members.

The mainstream media has done its fair share in contributing to the widespread sexism against Sen. Clinton. First, Sen. Clinton was seen as overbearing, unapproachable and too manly. Then, she cried in New Hampshire — and won the state’s primary, supposedly showing, as a Jan. 10 New York Times article noted, “a human side of herself that [voters] had never seen.” And, amazingly, Sen. Clinton managed to instantaneously transform herself from being an automaton to a weakling, with The New York Times noting in the same article that an advisor to Sen. Clinton commented, “She can’t just keep crying.” Honestly, who cares? People cry sometimes, and not only women.

The media has also focused a bizarre amount of attention on Sen. Clinton’s clothing style. In addition to other pieces about what Sen. Clinton chooses to wear, a July 20, 2007 Washington Post article noted, “There was cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton. … There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.”

What is undeniable to me is the sexism that has underlined the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Bitch and skank. Make Me a Sandwich. Crying and cleavage. If these are the issues that we are using to reject Sen. Clinton, who is superbly qualified to be president, then our society is far less progressive than we pretend it to be.

Ben Tannen is a junior in Saybrook College.


  • Anonymous

    There's no question that some of these points are valid, but I really don't think sexism is to blame for Hillary Clinton being rejected by the voters. Her support for the Iraq war, her defense of special interests, and the bumbling idiocy and Machiavellian tactics of her campaign have been far more damaging to her than some facebook group about making a sandwich.

    What the author ignores is that when this race started out, it was Hillary's to lose. If she had presented a more compelling case for her candidacy and not allowed her campaign to degenerate into such a mess, she'd be on her way to being president right now. Instead, she's about to be on her way back to New York. She and her campaign can blame anyone they want for this, but at the end of the day they have no one to blame but themselves.

  • anonymous

    This is one of the most well written columns I've seen in a while.

    It's about time we had someone speak out against the media and the unacceptable sexist response by some Americans to the first female presidential candidate.

  • Andrew M.

    To #1:

    Things can happen for more than one reason. Yes, a better-executed campaign--particularly one that put more effort into field work and organization--would almost certainly have won Hillary the nomination.

    But there's no question that Hillary gets treated differently by the media. Witness Tim Russert's absurd insistence on an answer to the question about drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, a very technical point. That debate was the beginning of Obama's comeback.

    Whether or not that was "sexism" at work, I don't know. But it certainly was not the case that every frontrunner gets treated that way, as the pundits suggested: McCain has gotten nothing but softballs this entire campaign.

  • Anonymous

    To #2:

    It may be well argued (in your opinion - probably because you agree with it), but Webster's defines "well-written" as articles that don't use dictionary definitions.

    Personally I find the arguments that a Facebook group, a conversation with a few college aged nimwits, and two newspaper articles, represents the attitudes of a "surprisingly large number of Americans" weak.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with #1. I had hoped that the race between Obama and Clinton would be a more balanced one. The media certainly shows a bias against Clinton, but her campaign has shown a surprising inability to adjust. At every turn, Obama's campaign seems to have taken any advantages it is given and multiplied them. Meanwhile Clinton's campaign has squandered its advantages. Even though its initial message of realism and experience no longer works, (it has been re-characterized as a pessimistic and traditionalist campaign)it seems unable to adjust or to even remind the people of America how Clinton would be a 'change' herself. It's sad that it could not have been a more fair and balanced campaign season but Clinton will have to look back and realize that much of her loss was due to some poor political choices that she and her team made, regardless of a biased media.

  • Anonymous

    This article is fantastic. The 08 campains has been the saddest sexist spectacle I've ever witnessed. I never would have thought that Iiberal college students and major media outlets could be so patently misogynist.

    I guess this is America.

  • Anonymous

    People don't call Hillary a bitch because they're horrible sexist people. They call her a bitch because she is a nasty, amoral woman concerned only with the accumulation of personal power.

  • @#7

    As an Obama supporter, I am absolutely disgusted by the slander against Clinton espoused by those on the left and the right. Clinton is not a "bitch"; she is not amoral; she is not nasty; and I fail to see any desire for personal power that is greater than say Romney's, a business man who seemed to think he could buy an election and power with personal fortune. What a (male) bitch?

    Of course not. Men are never called those things. At the very worst, Clinton can be faulted more believing that the qualifications for president have something to do with the amount one has sacrificed to a cause or party over the years. Strangely, if this were the case truly, all her supporters would have backed Biden.

    I balk at much of what Clinton says, from her hawkish talking points to her implication on occasion that only she truly feels the pain of the country.

    No, a lot of us do. But please, if you are going to go off on baseless, unargued diatribes, please don't associate yourself with Obama (or McCain) for that matter.

  • Anonymous

    Hey, so just to respond to these comments (I wrote the piece)…First, to #4, I don't see the problem with using dictionary definitions. The point was to provide the exact meaning of the terms and, in doing so, to show how very offensive they are.

    Second, to #7, thanks for proving my point. The term "bitch" is innately misogynistic because, as I wrote, it is a criticism based on gender, a trait over which we exercise no control. You would not call a male candidate a bitch. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that you can honestly assert that Sen. Clinton is "a nasty, amoral woman concerned only with the accumulation of personal power." It seems odd to me that a person of that description would fight for universal health care and the rights of American children, families, and women.

    And finally, I agree that Sen. Clinton's campaign has made its share of missteps. But I think that the sexism prevalent in our society has made it that much harder for her to become President.

  • 7 redux

    I've seen nothing in Sen. Clinton's history that would suggest she deeply cares about anything other than herself (and, by extension, her husband). Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but it is a widely-held one, and nothing I've seen in her campaign these past few months does anything to dispel that notion.

    Furthermore, if she were male, I would call 'him' either a 'dick' or an 'asshole', as 'bitch' has a different meaning when applied to men. 'Bitch' is not a criticism of her gender, but rather the most expedient expletive in describing her personality.

    Fortunately, this discussion is rendered somewhat moot by her campaign's implosion.

  • So what?

    People will judge one another on just about any basis. A candidate for POTUS should not be protected from enduring even the worst sorts of challenges, if those challenges are typical of the ones encountered in the presidency. You think the sexism is bad now? Wait until you see the political cartoons lampooning our first female president (whenever that happens…).

  • Michael Swetz

    This is an amazing article. I loved every word of it. I strongly believe with your views on sexism and Hillary is not the typical woman. She doesnt deserve to be called a "bitch or a skank". I love her to death!

  • Lady Chavez and Fluffgirl
  • Gina

    I mistakenly believed this country was more politically and intellectually open-minded -but then came the 2008 presidential campaign. I have been shocked and truly insulted at the amount of hate, fear and utter ignorance thrown at Hillary. I knew that sexism existed, of course, but to this degree (and with the obvious bias of the media) I had no idea. The talking heads have basically killed the idea that Hillary even has a chance. Outright misogyny is never challenged but a whisper of Obama's race has everyone backtracking and apologizing.

  • Ginny

    I also love and respect Hillary. Thank you Ben for your honest reporting of the facts.

  • queen Julianna

    I absolutely agree with the main article and #14 and #15 When it comes to male chauvanists "Give a woman anything but don't give her power or control." If a woman has the audacity to try to get P and C the insecure males come out of the woodwork like roaches.