The stubborn sexism of American politics

Illustration of a woman at the center of incoming barbs.
Paige Vickers for Vox

It’s not just Don Lemon. When it comes to women in leadership roles, the discourse is broken.

Sending threatening text messages to a female colleague. Making fun of another woman by mimicking her on the air. Asking a co-anchor if, perhaps, she was having trouble remembering a statistic in the newscast because she had “mommy brain.”

These are just a few of the allegations — many of them captured on camera for the world to see — leveled at CNN anchor Don Lemon in a Variety report released on Wednesday. But Lemon was already facing increased scrutiny for voicing an extremely sexist opinion about a woman in a position of power.

In February, Lemon pronounced, on air, that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who recently announced her presidential bid, was not “in her prime.” Haley, at 51, is six years younger than Lemon.

The comment prompted widespread condemnation from both the left and the right, as well as from Lemon’s colleagues, and he was absent from CNN for two days. Lemon has since apologized for the Haley comments and, through a CNN spokesperson, denied the allegations in the Variety story.

Lemon is far from the first male pundit, however, to lob misogynist insults at women who have the audacity to run for office. Whether it’s cracks about their clothes, face, body, or even parenting, sexist comments are pretty much a rite of passage for any woman in American politics today.

Former Ambassador To UN Nikki Haley Holds Campaign Event
M. Scott Brauer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nikki Haley speaks during a town hall campaign event in Salem, New Hampshire, in late March.

“It is so normalized,” said A’Shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, an organization that recruits Democratic women candidates. Political commentators routinely focus on women’s age or appearance, she says, “instead of their policies, their positions, and their effectiveness.”

Americans generally claim to be egalitarian; in a December 2022 USA Today/Suffolk University poll, for example, 55 percent said the gender of the president didn’t matter. But bias still shows up under scrutiny: In the same poll, 28 percent of voters said the ideal president would be male, while only 12 percent said she would be female. And in an August 2022 PerryUndem survey, 25 percent of Republicans said men generally make better leaders than women; only 4 percent said women were better suited to lead.

The numbers were flipped for Democrats, who were more likely to say women were better leaders than men. Experts say sexism is alive and well on both sides of the political aisle. “We continue to see evidence that while folks may be progressive in their policy beliefs and even when it comes to general questions about equity,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “their socialization around gender stereotypes and expectations is quite stubborn.”

Even as women notch historic firsts in statehouses and governor’s mansions around the country, they are subject to the same kind of undermining rhetoric that the very first women candidates experienced more than a century ago. Women leaders in America today face two competing truths: It’s increasingly normal to see women at the highest levels of government, and those women are still subject to enormous amounts of misogyny from commentators, voters, and their fellow elected officials.

Women have faced sexism in American politics ever since they, well, entered American politics. Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican and the first woman elected to Congress, was accused of sobbing during her 1917 vote to keep the US out of World War I (a charge she denied). Coverage of her campaign and election focused on her clothes, her dancing and needlework abilities, and the lack of “flowers or feminine knick-knacks” in her congressional office. Her opponent, Jacob Crull, was reportedly so distraught over being beaten by a woman that he attempted suicide.

Over the next 100 years, more women entered political office, but the treatment they received didn’t change very much. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to Congress, was repeatedly accosted by a white male colleague who told her he couldn’t believe she made the same amount of money as him, historian Tammy Brown told Vox’s Li Zhou in 2020 (all rank-and-file members of Congress receive the same salary under the law). She also faced racism and sexism when she ran for president in 1972, including thinly veiled concerns about her “electability.”

In the 1990s, Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman to become a US senator, had her body and outfit mocked on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. The Illinois senator was also criticized for wearing her hair in braids.

More recently, in 2008, hecklers chanted “Iron my shirt” at a campaign event for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run (“the remnants of sexism are alive,” she reportedly responded). The same year, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin faced gendered jokes and criticisms from the left, with liberal commentator Ed Schultz saying she set off a “bimbo alert” and then-VP candidate Joe Biden quipping that the difference between himself and his opponent was that “she’s good-looking.” And in 2017, female journalists were reportedly kicked out of the House Speaker’s Lobby for wearing sleeveless dresses, prompting Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) to challenge what many saw as a dated, sexist dress code: “I’m standing here in my professional attire,” she said in a speech, “which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes.”

Candidates and leaders of color, meanwhile, have had to confront the double obstacles of racism and sexism. Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to President Obama, faced constant criticism in the press, with a Politico column calling her “more an obstructer than a facilitator” and claiming that other staffers were clamoring for Obama to “push her into the East Wing, where she can hang out with Michelle Obama and the White House social secretary.” Kamala Harris, meanwhile, was repeatedly characterized as “aggressive” and power-hungry during her 2020 vice presidential run, criticisms that drew heavily on the racist stereotype of the “angry Black woman.”

Now, nearly four years later, Harris is the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to serve as vice president. A record number of women were sworn into Congress in January, including Democratic Rep. Becca Balint, the first woman and first openly LGBTQ person to represent Vermont, and Rep. Summer Lee, also a Democrat, the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania. In February, Haley, the first woman and first Asian American person elected governor of South Carolina, also became the first person to challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Despite these high-profile examples, however, there are signs of stagnation. Women still hold only 27.9 percent of seats in Congress, despite making up half the population. There are currently no Black women in the Senate. And the kinds of comments that Clinton and Palin faced more than 10 years ago are still a reality today.

Gholar, the Emerge president, got her start in politics in 2006 as the co-founder of the group’s Nevada branch. Working with Democratic women candidates at the time, “I would see the misogyny, the sexism that they faced,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate that all these years later, we still have to deal with it.”

Especially for liberals, “there is sometimes a perception of permissiveness if this is somebody who you disagree with,” Dittmar said. So left-wingers are more likely to launch sexist attacks against someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene — who was mocked over her appearance at the State of the Union address this year and compared to Cruella de Vil and the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — than against a fellow progressive. They’re also less likely to defend her when those attacks come from others.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, wearing a white fur-trimmed coat, stands making a mocking face and a thumbs-down gesture.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was roundly criticized for her behavior — but also her appearance — during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

All this adds up to a climate in which women still have to go above and beyond to prove they’re “electable” — something Biden used to his advantage during the 2020 campaign, when he said beating Trump would be easier for him than for his female opponents because he wouldn’t be facing gender bias. “His intention was to say, that’s just how it is,” Dittmar said. “But electorally, it’s also a strategy.”

Biden and other male candidates “have a lot more wiggle room in terms of being able to establish their electability outside of their gender,” said Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

“I don’t think anybody questions whether a man can be president,” she said. “A man is usually president.”

An increasing number of countries around the world have elected one or more female leaders in recent years, and their progress toward equity could serve as a model for the US. New Zealand, Iceland, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Poland, Finland, and Barbados have all had multiple women serving in high office, sometimes at the same time.

In some cases, women have been able to ascend because their country gives roles like the presidency less power, or because they are part of political dynasties. But there are also cultural factors that can make it easier for women candidates to succeed: Countries where voters express more support for gender equality are more likely to have women leaders, Jalalzai said.

Also helpful are policies like paid parental leave that bolster women’s economic and social equality. In the US, many women don’t enter politics until their children are grown, Gholar pointed out — then they, like Haley, face discrimination or criticism about their age. Recent legislation to allow campaign funds to be used for child care can make it easier for mothers — who still shoulder a disproportionate amount of child care responsibilities — to run for office, Gholar said.

When it comes to combating sexist comments, meanwhile, a head-on approach has been effective for women leaders around the world. For example, Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland and then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand were once asked in a joint press conference if they were meeting “just because you’re similar in age” rather than for actual policy reasons, Jalalzai said. “I wonder whether anyone ever asked Barack Obama and John Key if they met because they were of similar age,” Ardern swiftly responded. “We are meeting because we are prime ministers,” Marin added.

“I thought that it landed really, really well,” Jalalzai said. “It just gave some voice to what women experience all the time.”

In the US, too, more and more women have been “willing to talk about the bias that they face” in recent years, and have been able to do so without “​​the same level of backlash they might have experienced or received before,” Dittmar said. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for instance, in 2020 gave a speech on the House floor after Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) reportedly called her a “fucking bitch.”

“This issue is not about one incident,” she said. “It is cultural. It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.”

Ocasio-Cortez was joined by fellow members of Congress including Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, Al Green, Steny Hoyer, and Ayanna Pressley. She was also joined, at least in spirit, by many ordinary Americans who were able to watch and comment on the proceedings from home. Thanks to social media, “there’s more of a support structure” today than in years past for women candidates who call out sexism, Dittmar said. It’s easier for like-minded voters “to have their back.”

That kind of support is critical, whether it comes from commentators, fellow leaders, or the general public, experts say. Previous research has shown “the importance of third-party folks calling out the bad behavior,” Dittmar said, “not putting the onus on the women themselves.”

As Gholar put it, “I want to see more men, too, because it is more impactful when you have a fellow man saying, ‘This is not okay.’”

For many, the fact that there’s still so much bad behavior to call out is a depressing reminder that, though their numbers are increasing, women in American politics remain the exception rather than the rule. The most basic way to change that, some say, is at the ballot box.

“For women of color in particular, the best thing that we can do is support them and get them in elected office,” Gholar said. Electing women of color as leaders sends a message to all Americans, especially young people, that “they tried all the stereotypes, the racism, the misogyny, the sexism, but enough people knew it was BS that they voted to put that woman in office,” she explained. “That is the best signal that we can send.”

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