gender: politics

Larry Harnisch at the Daily Mirror dug up this gem, a 1909 story from the Los Angeles Times about prominent Chicago-area women’s rights advocates pushing back the time they served Thanksgiving dinner in order to go see the British suffragist Emiline Pankhurst:



“…one of the women voiced the sentiment that ‘every suffragist is a militant suffragist at heart’.” Well, obviously, if you’re willing to postpone Thanksgiving dinner, no matter what this woman says:

Picture 1

Those British suffragists must have been something if stoning legislators was part of the discussion.

Both my colleague, my friend, and a reader (that’d be John L, Dmitriy T.M., and Jillian Y.) sent along this month’s cover of Newsweek.  FOX News and Palin both are calling it “sexist” and “demeaning”:


I have to agree with FOX News here.  Sexualizing a woman is a way to make her seem less important.  It’s, literally, to disempower her.  This magazine cover tells us that we shouldn’t take Palin seriously.   With her short shorts, sexy legs, pigtails, and friendly smile, it turns her into a political joke.

But this is about more than gender; it’s about the relationship between power and sex in our society.  Because we so frequently see sex as a power struggle, to be presented as a sexual object is to be presented as passive, consumable, inert (remember, only one person gets “fucked”).  While both men and women can be presented as sexual objects, because of sexism, this particular tool can be used more effectively against women than men.  (And when it is used against a man, it often has the effect of feminizing him, making an association with femininity/sexual subordination the very thing that disempowers him.  Ah the tangled web of sex, sexuality, gender, and power.)

Whether you think Palin should or shouldn’t be taken seriously is irrelevant here.  What is interesting is just how much Newsweek can do to influence the public one way or another, even if all they do is see the cover.

Images matter.

For comparison, I did a quick search for Newsweek covers featuring the last election’s Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates for comparison.  Compare:





For more examples of the sexualization of Palin, see here, here, and here.

And for more on the relationship between sex and power, see these posts: power one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,and, eleven.

(Sources: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Amanda C. caught John McCain with some interesting presumptions! The contact part of his webpage has a drop down menu for the senders’ honorific(s) (see a close up below):


Close up:


So, the list is heteronormative (no “Mr. and Mr.” or “Ms. and Ms.”).

Further, because no write-ins are allowed, it also forces people who aren’t gender-typical to choose a gender if they want to send McCain a note.

And it bizarrely erases women doctors (no “Mr. and Dr.” or “Dr. and Mr.”).

Nice catch, Amanda!

UPDATE: After seeing this, Danielle F. sent in a screenshot of the honorifics choices that came up when she ordered tickets to “The Nutcracker” at the Detroit Opera House:


So you could theoretically be a single female Rev., Col., Capt., and so on, but the married versions of those all assume a female spouse. Notice they also have a listing for King, but not Queen.  I guess they get a lot of male royalty at the Detroit Opera House.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

FiveThirtyEight has up an interesting article about the proportion of Republicans in the U.S. Congress who are women, as well as comparisons to conservative parties in several other countries. The U.S. data (note that, contrary to the usual color-coding, in these tables red = left and blue = right, and an * indicates it is the party in power):


Now, one obvious explanation for this data would be that there aren’t that many women in the Republican party compared to the Democratic party, so there are accordingly fewer women in Congress (anyone have data on the gender breakdown by party, as opposed to voting in particular elections?). Or maybe they just can’t get elected. Another would be that parties on the right often encourage gender roles that are more “traditional,” with the idea that public life (particularly politics) is more appropriate for men, while women focus more on the private sphere of home life and extensions of it (say, education).

There may very well be some truth there, but that’s not the whole story. For one thing, the U.S. lags behind many other nations in terms of the percent of female legislators (a pattern that holds in the U.S. whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress, though the % changes somewhat):


The FiveThirtyEight post also compares parties in Sweden, Japan, Germany, and the U.S. in terms of the representation of women in left- and right-leaning parties, based on data for the parties holding seats in the legislative bodies in each country.  In Sweden a center/right coalition is currently in power, while in Germany a left-leaning and right-leaning party have formed a coalition. A party on the left recently took power from a party on the left in Japan. A comparison of the four countries, broken down by political orientation:


Of course, parties on the right and left in each nation have different platforms, policy emphases, bases of support, and gender ideologies, so they aren’t directly comparable. But the “proportion” column above compares left and right parties within each country; it reflects the % of right party legislators that is female compared to the % in more left-leaning parties. That is, if the parties on the political right had the same % of female legislators as parties on the political left in that country, the proportion would be 100.0%. The lower the proportion, the lower the % of female legislators on the right compared to their representation on the left.

As we see, there are clear differences by political orientation in all countries, but there is an enormous range. The U.S. stands out with a particularly low proportion, indicating the largest gap between right and left parties.

Of course, the other story here is that both the U.S. and Japan stand out with extremely low percentages of legislators who are women in either party, with Germany doing better but still lagging compared to the proportion of women in the population. On the other hand, both left and right parties in Sweden seem to be capable of recruiting women who run for national office and win.

Etan B. sent in this ad (found Etan’s blog) that the CDU, a conservative German political party, is using to compare its candidate, Vera Lengsefeld, to Angela Merkel. The ad shows a photo of Merkel on the left and Lengsfeld on the right. Both women are in dresses that reveal cleavage (the photo of Merkel generated a lot of discussion when it first appeared about whether she was dressed too sexily):


The text on the left, across the image of Merkel, says “We have more to offer,” the implication being, of course, that the conservative party has more to rely on than cleavage. Lengsfeld explained the ad this way:

If only a tenth of them also look at the content of my policies, I will have reached many more people than I could have done with classic street canvassing.

UPDATE: Now I’m confused. Elena says,

Merkel is the chairwoman of the CDU. Both women belong to the same party, and according to the ad both have “[more] to offer”.

I apologize for the confusion about Merkel’s party–I read in two different places the account I gave above. So I guess the CDU is basically saying you should vote for it because it has candidates that are sexy? I kinda think that’s actually worse than what I originally thought it was. Elena, thanks so much for the clarification!

You can also read an article about the controversial ad at NPR.

As Etan points out, it’s reminiscent of the scrutiny Hillary Clinton received after she wore this outfit on the Senate floor:


As far as men go, in 2000 Rolling Stone was accused of airbrushing this cover photo of Al Gore to make his crotch bulge bigger (via):


So there are lots of examples of efforts to delegitimize political candidates by focusing on their looks or sexuality, but the Lengsfeld one is the most blatant I’ve seen recently.

Carl G. sent in this cartoon, found at Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom, that ran during the 1864 Presidential election campaign and played on voters’ fears of racial mixing:


The following text accompanied the cartoon:

The Miscegenation Ball at the Headquarters of the Lincoln Central Campaign Club, Corner of Broadway and Twenty Third Street New York Sept. 22d. 1864 being a perfect fac simile of the room &c. &c. (From the New York World Sept. 23d. 1864). No sooner were the formal proceedings and speeches hurried through with, than the room was cleared for a “negro ball,” which then and there took place! Some members of the “Central Lincoln Club” left the room before the mystical and circling rites of languishing glance and mazy dance commenced. But that Many remained is also true. This fact We Certify, “that on the floor during the progress of the ball were many of the accredited leaders of the Black Republican party, thus testifying their faith by works in the hall and headquarters of their political gathering. There were Republican Office-Holders, and prominent men of various degrees, and at least one Presidential Elector On The Republican Ticket.

I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen, so it’s good to see that outright lying in political campaigns isn’t new.

It’s interesting that all the couples feature White men and Black women. Usually opponents to abolition or desegretation depicted White women with Black men, sometimes voluntarily, other times showing Black men as sexually aggressive predators who threaten White women’s virtue.

And of course, while they weren’t generally having “Negro balls,” many White men at the time were sexually involved with Black women, often (though not always) women they owned as slaves and who had little ability to say no to, or do anything about, their sexual advances. So the real outrage here would be not so much that White men were having (often coercive) sex with Black women, but that Black women and White men would be couples, socializing openly and in a situation of “universal freedom” that would put Black women on a more equal footing relative to their White partners (or, anyway, closer to the level of equality White women had with White men, which was more than Black women had but clearly left a lot to be desired).

On another note, Carl points out that even though this is a cartoon meant to incite fears of racial mixing among Whites, the African American women are not drawn in a way that makes them look grotesque or monstrous like so many cartoons at the time did.

The Women’s Media Center has compiled a series of clips exposing the racist and sexist discourse surrounding Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court:

Via Racialicious.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Liz C. sent us a link to a segment of The Daily Show featuring Kristen Schaal and John Stewart (aired July 1st).  They discuss Sarkozy’s ban on burkas and, in doing so, question whether the burka is truly oppressive and whether American fashion is, in contrast, oh-so-liberating.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Burka Ban

We covered Heelarious here.

See also this confessionechoing Stewart and Schaal’s conversation.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.