Despite a record number of female candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020, feminist groups, still smarting from Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, think women are the victims of sexism when it comes to running for political office. And this time they are blaming the media.
This week, a coalition of feminist groups, including EMILY’s List, Women’s March, and UltraViolet, released a letter calling out the media for its supposed bias against female candidates. “The historic number of highly qualified women candidates in the race are given significantly less attention and media exposure than their male peers,” the letter states. “And when the media does focus on women candidates, there is often a default to sexist tropes about women in leadership or a lack of focus on the substantive backgrounds and policies of the women candidates.”
The letter-writers are especially incensed that the media supposedly focuses on the “likability” of female candidates but not of men, something Noah Rothman has thoroughly debunked, most notably in the case of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
But feminist groups don’t seem to need much hard evidence for their feelings about media bias, which is why they only cite a flimsy amount of it. The letter footnotes FiveThirtyEight story that showed Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg received more media attention than other candidates, but that analysis was only measuring a single week of media coverage. Their other evidence is a story from Storybench (a Northeastern School of Journalism “digital storytelling” website) that analyzed “positive” and “negative” sentiments in political coverage of male and female candidates. Taken together, this is hardly powerful proof of media sexism.
Nevertheless, their letter lists their demands for sexism-free treatment by the media, namely: Half of all televised town hall debates should be moderated by women and half should be people of color; male candidates should be asked about “sexism, maternal health and mortality, abortion access, and sexual assault /violence; and that the media “cover women candidates as seriously as you cover men.”
But if they were serious, they would have marshaled better evidence for their claims. Consider that the supposedly inflated coverage of Buttigieg has still left him polling at only 6 percent (down from 8 percent). As well, their complaints about sexism also overlook the fact that some of the people running for the Democratic nomination are just better candidates than others, regardless of their gender. As the Storybench piece these feminists cite ruefully notes of one such candidate, “With dismal polling numbers and a troubling lack of endorsements, [Kirsten] Gillibrand could really use some positive press.” Really? If you’re wondering why, continue reading: “Allegations came out that she mishandled a sexual assault claim within her office, a bad story that becomes worse when one remembers that Gillibrand was an outspoken advocate of the #MeToo movement.”
And let’s not forget that female candidates are happy to invoke feminine stereotypes when it suits them (and in ways male candidates might not get away with). Elizabeth Warren thanks her husband on social media and often refers to him as “Sweetie” while Beto O’Rourke gets denounced for sheepishly admitting his wife does more childcare than he does. To celebrate Mother’s Day, Senator Kamala Harris’ husband tweeted a picture of Harris smiling and wearing an apron while making jerk chicken in her kitchen, a move no doubt meant to highlight the softer side of the tough former prosecutor. And Gillibrand constantly reminds voters that she’s a mother.
Sexism exists, in politics as in many other fields. But the good news is, despite the carping of feminist groups, Americans still overwhelmingly elect people based on their partisan leanings, not the sex of the candidate. Our political system has plenty of challenges to overcome these days. It doesn’t need feminists manufacturing ones.