Sexism in American Politics


Copyright: © 2018 Fred Murphy

In American history, there have been no shortages when it comes to discrimination against different groups of people. Lately, sexism has been a huge topic in politics and the media. Some of the most recent political decisions have impacted bodily autonomy, but numerous other issues exist.

On September 15, 2022, there was a climate change hearing in Congress that gathered a lot of attention, but not for predictable reasons. During this hearing, Rep. Clay Higgins began shouting at the witness who was testifying, Raya Salter. Higgins called Salter “young lady” and “boo” during his fit. Salter, a lawyer and founder of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center with over 20 years of experience, tried answering his questions, only to be interrupted after every other word.

This encounter encouraged Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to apologize for her fellow lawmaker. She said to Salter, “I just want you to know that in the four years that I’ve sat on this committee, I have never seen members of Congress — Republican or Democrat — disrespect a witness in the way that I have seen them disrespect you today. I do not care what party they are in. I’ve never seen anything like that. For the gentleman of Louisiana and the comfort he felt in yelling at you like that, there’s more than one way to get a point across.”

Ocasio-Cortez followed this with a powerful statement. “Frankly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private.”

This is by no means the first time a blatantly sexist remark or action in American politics has happened, even recently. In June 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a court case that granted the right to an abortion to people with uteruses across the country. This action will cost countless women their lives. Read more about Roe v. Wade here.

Earlier this year, Ketanji Brown Jackson was appointed to sit on the Supreme Court. This was a monumental occasion, as Jackson is the first African-American woman to hold this position. However, her confirmation hearings were not always on track.

On the third day of hearings, Senator Ted Cruz used the hour he had to ask questions and bring up concerns to instead wave a children’s book in the air and ask Jackson if she thinks “babies are racist?”

Jackson answered a number of ridiculous questions like this one. Senator Lindsey Graham repeatedly cut her off and questioned her well over his time limit. He, along with other GOP lawmakers, accused Jackson of being easy-going in child pornography cases, though the facts of the cases say otherwise. And yet, she stayed perfectly stoic and calm through the most brutal exchanges.

This has been compared to Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings where Cruz voted to confirm Kavanaugh, despite the rape allegation that was brought up at the hearing. Kavanaugh was also asked repeatedly about how much he drinks, and if he has ever blacked out from drinking, as this could confirm or deny the allegations against him. He repeatedly avoided the questions directed at him and got irrationally angry when asked to clarify his answers. He never gave a direct yes or no answer to a simple question, and yet was still praised by people like Cruz.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch went as far as to say the woman testifying at the Kavanaugh hearing was “an attractive, good witness. In other words, she’s pleasing.” which completely diminishes the woman’s testimony.

Men have used this tactic for centuries. They have made women believe that their appearance matters more than what they do or say. It makes a woman’s value depend solely on her appearance. Men get to look however they want to and have ideas, women have to pick one: beauty or brains?

Women also have higher rates of “self-objectifying” than men. This means that the outside views of them and their bodies have been engrained in their brains. This, in turn, lets women believe that there is no need to change the way society treats women. If men in politics prosper from putting down women, and women continue to put each other down, there is little room for change.

In 2009, a study was conducted about Americans’ perceptions of the vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. The study found that when people were exposed to appearance-oriented media about Palin were less likely to vote for her, regardless of what they believed about her politics. This media also reduced perceptions of her competence and humanness.

The outcomes of this study reinforce what feminists have been saying for ages. Objectification not only delegitimizes and diminishes a woman but also dehumanizes her. Dehumanization is the denial of positive human qualities in a person or group and the cruelty and suffering that accompanies it.

There also tends to be a lot of overlap in the discrimination that different marginalized groups face. A white woman will likely be treated differently than a black woman in a political setting, who will be treated differently than an openly gay woman. This is called intersectionality. Many of the examples listed above could just as equally be about racism in politics, as well as sexism. Ketanji Brown Jackson would not have been treated with the disrespect she faced if she were white. Amy Coney Barrett certainly wasn’t, but she is white, while Jackson is not.

It is crucial to talk about intersectional discrimination because it allows the fight for equality to become more inclusive. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing social issues, because everyone is different and has different experiences. Intersectional feminism allows for everyone’s issues to be heard, not just middle-class white women, which is what a lot of the feminist movement focuses on.

It’s easy to practice intersectional feminism, but you must be willing to examine your own privilege. A white, able-bodied heterosexual cisgender woman might not have a perfect life, and quite likely experiences discrimination because of her gender, but in other areas, she is privileged. Once she’s able to acknowledge that, she can listen to other people and help create solutions that benefit everyone. Conversations need to be had, not won.

At the end of the day, we all want to be treated equally and equitably. The only way to do this is to hear each other out and pay attention to the world around us, even if we are not directly impacted by current affairs.