Several years ago, I had a conversation with a political consultant that turned out to be eerily prescient. She recounted a focus group discussion she’d had with young women about the possibility of a Hillary Clinton campaign for the presidency. One of the young women spoke up: “I don’t think I can support Grandma.” Several others echoed this sentiment. They said they admired her greatly but thought she was too old for another run. They did not state opposition to her politics; they simply thought of Clinton as “too old”. I wonder if some of these young women are now supporting Bernie Sanders, an elder politician who is not dismissed as “Gramps”.
Let’s put aside a discussion of the political agendas and strategies of Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton. And let’s forgo a dissection of their strengths and weaknesses as candidates or as leaders of this frighteningly divided nation. As all people will, they will both surely disappoint in some ways; politics requires compromise and coalition-building, and change rarely comes fast enough. Bottom line for me is that I want a Democrat to nominate our next Supreme Court justices. Their decisions greatly impact the lives of millions of Americans. And do I even need to say it? I definitely do not want a president who tweets that he “loves” Hispanics while posing in front of a “taco bowl” at Trump Tower.
Now, back to “Grandma”. I have had to temporarily unfollow some of my friends and acquaintances on social media because of their sexism. Men and women, young and old, have felt a shocking lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment about their own bias. I’ve been angry, disappointed and astonished as I’ve watched my newsfeed fill with dangerous, tired tropes about women as leaders.
There was one particularly horrible one about Secretary Clinton giving sexual favors to the African American community in order to “earn” their votes. She has been called witch, hag, and of course the other word that rhymes with witch. She’s supposedly a closet lesbian, a dyke, and a man-hater. People remark on her aging face, her “sneaky” smile and her “shrill” voice. It makes my stomach turn and hurts my heart, and it sets all women politicians back.
Many were surprised when the Huffington Post reported that some irate Sanders supporters emailed, texted and phoned threats to the chair of the Nevada Democratic Convention that used the “b” word and the vulgar “c” word for women’s genitals. I was not at all surprised. I have watched it building for months now.
It is still not easy to be a woman in politics. When I first announced my run for Senate, I received an anonymous postcard in the mail telling me to stay home with my kids. A friend of mine who just embarked on her first political campaign in Vermont has repeatedly heard the same thing. We are also judged on our size, clothes, hair, and voices in a way that male candidates generally are not.
I recently sat on a panel to discuss LGBTQ issues in the statehouse. A student asked if I’d heard much homophobia in the legislature. I had to answer honestly: I saw more sexism.
There are real differences between the style, substance, and strategies of Bernie and Hillary. But sexism has no place in this race. Period.
Note: I will be on hiatus from this column during the campaign season so that all candidates get equal exposure. I look forward to writing again in November.