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Sexism takes center stage in 2014

It may be a big year for women seeking office. But with it has come a torrent of chauvinism and sexual innuendo -- almost exclusively from Republican men.
Michael Hayden, Phyllis Schlafly, Rand Paul, Matt Bevin and Glenn Beck
(L-R) Michael Hayden, Phyllis Schlafly, Rand Paul, Matt Bevin and Glenn Beck

Of course women are paid less – they don’t work as hard as men. “Guys! I’m not making this stuff up,” a New Hampshire state representative explained. And you know what’s great about breast-feeding? “It’s sexy,” an Alaska Republican declared. This Tea Party candidate’s wife is “sexy” too, and he wants voters to know that he has large testicles.

When Glenn Beck said Hillary Clinton was so desperate to become president, that she would have “sex with a woman on the White House desk if it becomes popular,” he was channeling the same rhetoric used to smear women and women candidates across the country this year.

2014 may be a banner year for women seeking office. But with it has come a torrent of chauvinistic invective and sexual innuendo -- almost exclusively from Republican men. And it's only half way through the year.

Just this week, Republican Matt Bevin said at a campaign event that he’s prepared to face off against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes for the Kentucky Senate seat because she is just a young woman without life experience. 

“Republicans just do not understand women – they don’t know how to run against them, work with them, or create policies that don’t hurt them,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List which supports Democratic women candidates.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton ended her pursuit of the Democratic nomination by noting that “although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.” In her last and most notable campaign speech, Clinton highlighted a narrowed gender gap and said women were surely on the way up.

Even in the face of defeat, the speech was seen by many as a rallying call after unprecedented sexism throughout her campaign. Both Clinton and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin were pummeled by sexist comments and constant references to their appearances. Anne Kornblut’s retrospective Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: What It Will Take for a Woman to Win and Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women detailed the wave of blatant sexism that crashed on the election, reflecting on the obstacles and ancient stereotypes.

Six years later, a congresswoman is referred to as “some bimbo”; a woman in pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat is an “empty dress,” and a candidate who supports access to reproductive health care reduced to “abortion Barbie.”

"Republicans just do not understand women – they don’t know how to run against them - EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock"'

“When faced with a smart, strong Democratic woman, Republicans resort to name-calling because they know that they don’t have a political leg to stand on,” Schriock added.

Some public shaming has led to a number of apologies by male office-holders and seekers. But the tone of this election cycle seems to mirror a larger political comfort with sexism that many women hoped society would have shed by now.

The electorate however has not been kind to candidates or parties viewed as insensitive toward woman. Women broke for President Obama over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by 12 points in 2008 and several high-profile GOP candidates suffered losses following a string of appalling comments, the most notorious having to do with someone's idea of “legitimate rape.”

By the end of 2012, the GOP was looking like the “War on Women” Party. Hoping to mitigate the damage, Republicans offered tutoring in how to run against female candidates. “Some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said last year.

But the problems have only escalated.

The running list of offensive comments from 2014 alone includes some of the country’s highest officials. Last month, former CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein was getting too “emotional” over the Bush-era torture program. As a result, she had compromised the objectivity of her committee's investigation of those programs, Hayden charged.  

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was deemed by conservatives as “illiterate,” “overheated” and fueled by “emotion” after reading from her dissenting opinion in an affirmative action case.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul argued that former President Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern while in office should disqualify his wife's potential candidacy.  “Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky should complicate his return to the White House, even as first spouse,” Paul said. 

After a Boston Bruins win, When New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen congratulated the hockey team, she was attacked via Twitter by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee: “You don’t know the first thing about hockey. Spare us the staff authorized tweets.”

This assault on women isn’t just coming from men, either. 

Partisan issues have become a women’s issue. Phyllis Schlafly, a Republican and founder of the Eagle Forum -- a conservative group -- turned heads last month when she said the pay gap isn’t wide enough. “Another fact is the influence of hypergamy, which means that women typically choose a mate (husband or boyfriend) who earns more than she does,” Schlafly said. “Men don’t have the same preference for a higher-earning mate.”

Marriage has been ammo for anti-feminists this year too. The Heritage Foundation -- a conservative Washington think tank -- held an event on the last day of Women’s History Month where panelists shared their belief that “feminism has done so much damage to happiness.” Mollie Hemingway, who has written about being a submissive wife, urged everyone to “go get married if you’re not married.” Mona Charen said that “Married women are happier, healthier, and more productive than single women...If we truly want more women to thrive, we have to revive the marriage norm.”

Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, who is not married, wrote an op-ed slamming Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis as a bad mother, in a “made-for-tv-movie-type-tale. No matter what they say – feminism is a farce,” Palin wrote. “If you truly believe in strong, independent women, you’d be a conservative.”

Last month, Breitbart News displayed a wildly offensive ad featuring Nancy Pelosi in a Miley Cyrus-esque pose. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz called it “foul, offensive, and disrespectful to all women" and "a disgusting new low."

Savvy women candidates and women’s groups are using this sexism to their advantage when fundraising – and the more outrageous the comment the better. As The New York Times reported this year, “Democrats do not just get mad when they hear those words. They cash in.”

After being called an “empty dress,” Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky, sent supporters an email entitled “Empty Dress” and linked to a donation page. EMILY’s List issued an online petition, “Tell the G.O.P: Pregnant Women Are Not ‘Hosts,’” following a state senator’s comment in a Facebook post that a pregnant woman ‘hosts’ the child.

Some female politicians, such as Heather Mizeur -- a member of the Maryland House and a current candidate for governor -- have fought back. In response to a Tweet from Pat Davis which reads “@heathermizeur No thanks. I only vote for men. They are natural born leaders. You need to stay home and raise your children. Go away” Mizeur tweeted “Wow. Really? It’s 2014. I bet @emilyslist @FEMMajority @MAryland_NOW @WCFonline might have an opinion about this.” Davis’s bio includes, “End feminism. Revive motherhood. Embrace Conservative Principles.”