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From insults to infidelity: A user’s guide to sexism in the 2016 race

Rosalynn Carter, from left, Caroline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton leave the funeral service for former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Clinton was listed in the guest roster as Mrs. Bill Clinton.
Rosalynn Carter, from left, Caroline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton leave the funeral service for former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Clinton was listed in the guest roster as Mrs. Bill Clinton. Asssociated Press

I know a little bit about sexism.

As a freshman film student at California State University, Northridge, I listened disbelievingly as a former film director lambasted the men in the class because “a girl” had gotten the highest score on a written test and beaten them all. That “girl” was me. I changed my major after one semester.

As a teenage part-time executive secretary at a famous Hollywood firm, I was flattered to have my work repeatedly complimented by the president of the company, until he invited me up to his place to see his art collection. It didn’t happen, and neither did my career advancement at the company.

I could regale you with tales of little gropes and big insults, but space does not permit. Before it was called “sexual harassment,” it was called “the conditions that prevail.”

Later, I ran for public office and entered the world of politics.

So I watch with interest and amusement as the presidential race takes its serpentine path through women’s issues and the issue of women. Here’s my personal guide to separating the serious from the ridiculous.

First, it’s ridiculous to react to every criticism of a female candidate by crying, “Sexism!” Female candidates don’t have a special right to be treated respectfully, because no one in politics is treated respectfully. Abraham Lincoln didn’t get positive press coverage until he was shot.

It’s equally absurd to get riled up over criticism of a female candidate’s wardrobe. True, there’s no criticism of the uniform worn by male candidates, or male news anchors, or male actors at the Academy Awards. Women in public life have to deal with widespread public commentary about their clothing, and much of it comes from other women.

Of course, just because a woman says it, that doesn’t mean it’s not sexist. Barbara Walters said of potential first lady Melania Trump, “Maybe because she’s so beautiful we don’t expect her to be as smart as she is.” That’s typical of the mixed message to women in our society, where beauty pageants feature quizzes and causes and scholarships to demonstrate that they respect a woman for her mind, once she’s passed the swimsuit test.

Women are judged on their looks, and in politics, so are men. Maybe I’m being sexist here, but I think it’s worse when a man belittles a woman’s physical attractiveness. It’s rude and juvenile; I don’t care how many people gave “A” grades to their courses at Trump Junior High School.

An issue that wobbles between the serious and the ridiculous is infidelity. It seems ridiculous to spend even 10 seconds wondering whether a presidential candidate is guilty of adultery.

However, infidelity does matter in high public office, not because of the cheating, but because of the lying. A politician with a zipper problem (is that sexist?) is surrounded by aides and supporters who enable the infidelity with lies, or even payoffs. Government employees are conscripted into the effort to conceal and mislead. It’s a distraction at a minimum, and potentially a corrupting influence.

One thing it’s not is new. Lady Bird Johnson exposed her steely endurance when she derided former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mistress, Lucy Mercer, as “a fly on the wedding cake.” She might have said the same about women of her own husband’s acquaintance.

That was an era when a woman’s place in the world was defined by her marriage. We may have witnessed the passing of that era in the guest roster for Nancy Reagan’s funeral, where the Democratic party’s presidential front-runner was identified as “Mrs. Bill Clinton.” Note that a man’s preferred name – Bill, not William Jefferson – was respected.

Feminism is really about equal respect, and that’s at the core of one very serious issue. Millions of female voters are insulted down to their bones when male politicians propose to restrict or revoke the rights established in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision on abortion. The lack of understanding or acknowledgment of women’s concerns is the Republican Party’s greatest political vulnerability.

The next president could appoint three, perhaps four Supreme Court justices.

Ultimately, it’s not the wardrobe of the candidates that will decide this election. For a lot of voters, the only thing that matters is who looks best in the black robes.

Susan Shelley is a San Fernando Valley author, a former television associate producer and twice a Republican candidate for the California Assembly. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com, or follow her on Twitter, @Susan_Shelley.

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