Does Calling Out Sexism Help Female Candidates?

A new study says yes — but in real life, voters may not like it when the candidates bite back.

Eric Risberg, File / AP

Reading comments about a female candidate’s appearance makes voters less likely to vote for them, according to a study released today. The research — conducted by Name It. Change It., a joint project between the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run — also found that fighting back against such comments could help the candidates. But history shows that may not always work.

The study is released in the wake of President Obama’s controversial introduction of Kamala Harris as “the best-looking attorney general in the country” — a remark for which he later apologized to Harris directly. Though some lamented a presumed infringement on freedom of speech associated with public criticism of President Obama’s comment, the Name It. Change It. study reveals that those who argue that physical “compliments” diminish the seriousness with which women in public positions are viewed are onto something — survey respondents became less likely to vote for a hypothetical woman candidate after reading negative, neutral, and positive descriptions of their appearance.

But what might have an even bigger impact is the study’s other main experiment, in which survey respondents were presented with negative, sexist stories about a hypothetical female Congressional candidate named Jane Smith. Researchers found, again, that voters’ perception of Smith was negatively impacted by sexist coverage — but they also found that voters responded well to legitimate third-party critiques of sexist coverage, and even more so when the candidate herself fought back.

Liberal media watchdog Media Matters critiqued what it called Newsweek’s “problem with sexism” in coverage of then-candidate Sarah Palin, including its use of the above photo.

But the results may not be so uncomplicatedly encouraging as they seem; for one, the study, with 800 likely voters as participants, is relatively small, and the voters started out favoring the female candidate (based on the profile and experience provided) by 11 points — a starting point which somewhat limits the realism of the experiment.

And the experiment didn’t include the real world’s legions of pundits (each with his or her own loyal fans) weighing in on the sexist remarks or the responses to the sexist remarks. The remarks and responses were also given to subjects in writing — they had neither visuals nor audio of the sexist attacks or the candidate’s response. And let anyone who doubts the potential significance of either remember the Howard Dean scream, or the weeks of psychoanalysis that followed Hillary Clinton after she appeared to get slightly choked up at a campaign stop in 2008.

Clinton is also an example of how fighting back against perceived sexism can backfire. Earlier in the election, Clinton’s campaign released a video suggesting that she was being “piled on” — a move that many took as a criticism of perceived sexism, but which Clinton later expressed to be about the fact that she was then the front-runner — and was subsequently accused of playing “the gender card,” even by some in her own party.

Other candidates have had more success responding to sexism directly. When Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann called out sexist coverage (Palin in response to a Newsweek cover, Bachmann in response to The Roots playing “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” to her arrival on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), each got substantial support from the GOP, right-wing media, and some (though not all) progressive feminists as well. It may be easier for conservative women, who aren’t as closely associated with feminism, to call out sexism without getting accused of harping too much on gender politics. Whatever the case, previous perceptions of the politicians in question (as well as other factors, like party loyalty) clearly play a more substantial role than this particular experiment can address.

None of this is to doubt the merits of the study — the results may well indicate a shift towards a political discourse that more openly recognizes and challenges the status quo politician. But the way these things play out in real-life American politics is usually a bit more complicated.

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