Let’s talk progressive sexism. Yes, the phrase itself seems oxymoronic — as it should — but “progressive sexism” certainly exists, especially in the 2016 election. So we should talk about it.
First, let me explain what I mean by "progressive sexism." It's different from the sexism and misogyny trumpeted from the right, which offers a few different brands of sexism. They offer what I call tradition-based sexism, often invoked by John Kasich and Chris Christie. It relies on 1950s-era society to make a point. One of the most notable recent examples of this came when Kasich stated at a campaign event on February 22 that there were "many women who left their kitchens to go out and to go door to door to put up yard signs for me." Of course, the right also has Donald Trump’s vile, unabashed misogyny and sexism. There's the litany of horrible things he's said about women before he declared his candidacy. And since then, he called Fox News' Megyn Kelly a "bimbo," mocked Carly Fiorina for her physical appearance, and made insinuations about Hillary Clinton being too weak, or lacking in "stamina," to be president.
But progressives have their own their own strain of sexism, too — one that has actually been around for years. Remember the vitriol foisted upon Clinton by her own party during her 2008 presidential campaign? One study from the University of Utah published in the journal Political Research Quarterly found that, of all media personalities during that election cycle eight years ago, MSNBC's popular liberal host Chris Matthews treated Clinton the worst, often referring to her as "Nurse Ratched" and once suggesting that her election to the U.S. Senate was the result of sympathy, since her husband "messed around" during his tenure as president.
From my perspective, this progressive sexism is still very present in 2016, even though it may not be obvious to everyone. For example, during the primary cycle, Clinton received a lot of flack for raising her voice — from people in her own political party. In fact, during CNN’s first Democratic debate, Sanders made a comment that more than hinted of sexism to me:
As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing."
Was Sanders — whose tendency to holler is, much of the time, depicted comically but rather affectionately on late-night TV — perpetuating a sexist reference to the stereotype that women who assert themselves are "shrill" or shout too much?
Throughout the primary season, Clinton's "shouting" or "yelling" came up in left-leaning circles as a knock against the former secretary of state. Dr. Courtney Sturgeon-Jarrett, professor of Women & Gender Studies at Ball State University in Indiana, tells me that in her classes, she broaches the issue of gender impression in politics and how it can play out in voters' perceptions.
“Students don’t always understand that Hillary [Clinton] is criticized a lot more for what she’s wearing or whether she smiles or not or whether she’s perceived as ‘yelling,’” Sturgeon-Jarrett explains. “You see other candidates yelling and not getting to fallback for it. Yet when Hillary Clinton raises her voice, everybody makes it an issue. I’ve had students say, ‘Well, I don’t want Hillary yelling at me. It would be just like having my mom or my wife as the president.’”
There have been even more blatant examples of progressive sexism. In March, former Pennsylvania governor and former chair of the Democratic National Committee Ed Rendell said that Trump will have trouble with women at the polls because there are “more ugly women in America than attractive women." By the way, he said that as a strong Clinton supporter.
The problem with Rendell's comment is glaring. But what was even more disheartening about the whole debacle was how, after he apologized, he followed it up with some nonsensical justifications, claiming that he'd only been poking fun at his own appearance (which doesn't make much sense) and trying to make the point that “there's more of us than there are of them" (an equally obscure excuse).
While progressive sexism often manifests as an implicit comment or a subtle insinuation, it can be just as loud and hateful as the right’s sexism. Case in point: This year's Nevada Democratic Convention. In May, a small but disturbing batch of Sanders supporters grew incensed over convention rules they perceived to be fixed for Clinton. The mess devolved into yelling and screaming on the convention floor, followed by phoned-in insults and threats being made to Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange.
On Monday, May 16, Nevada reporter Jon Ralston posted an update on his blog exposing the content of the emails and voicemails threatening Lange.
Male caller, voicemail #1362: You f**king stupid b***h! What the hell are you doing? You’re a f**king corrupt b***h! That is so f**king wrong. You should be ashamed and disgraced. You need to step down from that position because you are bad for America and bad for the Democratic Party. That was f**king bulls**t today. You need to step down. You’re a disgrace.
I reached out to Ralston for his take on the content of these emails, and what he thinks they say about sexism on the left. He tells me that the "same would have happened if [Lange] had been a man, just with different language.” He also says that he didn't think the threats were representative of Sanders' supporters overall, describing the comments as “mostly nastiness and cluelessness by a small percentage of Bernie supporters."
From my perspective, Sanders did not do enough in his response to the Nevada fracas. Yes, he condemned the threats of violence (OK, good), but he also seemed to insist that the party leaders had it coming (OK, bad). “The Democratic Party has a choice,” his statement read. “It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change — people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed, and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.”
To a certain degree, that jives with the anti-establishment spirit of his campaign. However, while Sanders was still in the race, especially near the bitter end, I sensed something insidious and, yes, sexist in his supporters' claims that the Democratic primary system is "rigged." I think Joan Walsh said it best in her op-ed for The Nation when she explained that she doesn’t “accept the presumption of moral and ideological superiority from a coalition that is dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent. There’s a growing element of male entitlement in the Sanders ‘movement’...”
As political pundit and CNN contributor Sally Kohn recently explained, progressive sexism can't be extricated or excused because it's coming from the left and not the right. “[W]hen you see progressive white men — many of whom enthusiastically supported Barack Obama’s candidacy — hate Clinton with every fiber of their being despite the fact that she’s a carbon copy of Obama’s ideology (or in fact now running slightly to his left), it’s hard to find any other explanation than sexism," Kohn wrote.
I ask Kohn if she thought it possible that liberals and Democrats are actually justifying their own demeaning behavior because, to put it quite bluntly, compared to the other side of the aisle, what they do and say just isn’t “that bad.”
“It’s interesting. In terms of political correctness, [the right] are the ones not being careful and who are encouraged to be more vigilant in their language," Kohn tells me. "But it’s actually often the left that is laziest about these things.” Kohn gives a hypothetical example of how someone on the left might justify his own sexist behavior by saying, “Hey, I’m a progressive. I believe in, you know, parental leave and whatnot. So what if I made a little sexist joke?”
For people who care about sexism — even progressive variants of it — those kind of jokes are a big deal. Whether having a woman in the Oval Office will lead to the dissipation or escalation of such remarks remains to be seen, but I'm leaning toward the ever-wise Michelle Cottle's assessment in The Atlantic: A Hillary Clinton presidency "promises to usher in a new age of public misogyny."
Image: Bustle/Caroline Wurtzel