Sexist Media, Sexist Attacks Hurt Women in Politics

Candidate Devastated by Over the Top Sexism in Mayoral & Congressional Campaigns

Sam Bennett
Women's Campaign Forum Foundation CEO Sam Bennett. (APRIL BARTHOLOMEW/Copyright © 2017, The Morning Call)

Women in politics have long endured sexist remarks and the kind of comments about appearance, wardrobe, and personality that are rarely made about male politicians. But for many years, the prevailing school of thought recommended that female candidates not deign to acknowledge this kind of gender-based slander or engage in any discussion that referenced it.​

However, a recent study commissioned in part by the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation shows that sexist attacks and sexist media coverage seriously hurt women in politics.

The study found that in order to mitigate the damage and regain lost ground, female candidates must respond swiftly and strongly to such attacks by identifying them as inappropriate and damaging to all women.

What happens to female candidates who ignore sexist attacks and attempt to rise above this sort of behavior? Sam Bennett, CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation, admits, "I never understood the toxic level of sexism in our society until I experienced it firsthand." Her story, told below, led her to conclude that "Politics remains one of the most rampant breeding grounds for misogyny."

The Mayor's Measurements

When she ran for mayor of Allentown, PA in 2001, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett was already well-known in her hometown. A former PTA president, she was a pillar of the community, having founded, led, or served on the boards of various civic organizations.

So she was completely taken aback by what happened during her first stump speech as a mayoral candidate.

Standing before a room full of men, she began to deliver her remarks when the chair of the meeting interrupted her with a totally bizarre and inappropriate request: "Sam, I want to ask a question all the men in this room have been dying to ask you: Just what are your measurements?"

As Bennett wrote in the Huffington Post:​​​

I was in disbelief. And if this wasn't bad enough, a reporter who witnessed this unabashed display of sexism wrote an article about that stump speech--and didn't even mention the incident.

Unfortunately, that experience was only a hint of what would come my way....

The Opposition's Vehemence

What came her way when she ran for Congress in 2008 was far worse. Bennett was facing a possible challenger in Pennsylvania State Senator Lisa Boscola, and Boscola's chief of staff, Bernie Kieklak, was well known in political circles for posting no-holds-barred commentary in local blogs. The remarks he let fly about Bennett at one online site are indicative of the level of sexism and misogyny many women candidates face.

To convey the intensity of Kieklak's over-the-top sexism regarding Bennett and his extreme vulgarity, his comments are reproduced in their entirety below with minimal censorship:

Sammy Bennett is a phony political whore who gives good head and makes cheap, blatant political opportunists look like Mother F***ing Teresa. Even her pussy is made of plastic.

The Candidate's Advisement

Bennett was floored by the nastiness but reasoned to herself that it was just one opinion on one blog. If she made a fuss, it would only draw attention to something she believed very few people would ever come across.

Realistically speaking, how many voters were going to see it? That was her first mistake:

Disbelief doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. But at least, I thought, it's just a comment on a blog.

And it was-- until my local paper, the Morning Call, decided to print the quote on their front page. And not just once. They ran it day after day after day, with a big picture of me right next to it....​

I was stunned and angry by this hostile and sexist attack. I wanted to fight back; I wanted to sue the paper. But I was advised by my attorney [not to]... My top tier national political consultants insisted that I not criticize the paper, because they would have to cover me again later in my campaign.

Bennett never took action, a move she now acknowledges was "one of my biggest life mistakes."And while she remained silent, other commenters posted to the same site supporting Kieklak's nastiness -- proof that when comments like these go unchecked, mob mentality steps in and amplifies the misogyny.

The Blogger's Intent

But Bernie O'Hare, the blogger behind the site where Kieklak posted his comments was incensed. He wrote:

What I detest most is the hypocricy [sic] of phonies like Kieklak and his ilk. They spout pious platitudes about "equality" and "equal opportunity" and "protecting a woman’s right to choose." But when you strip away the veneer, you still see sexists, racists and bigots.

In an interview with The Morning Call, O'Hare explained that because Kieklak's comments "crossed the line," he felt compelled to leave them on his site to expose Kieklak and reveal the thoughts of the chief of staff of a potential Congressional candidate:

Here is a woman who is contemplating a run for Congress, and she has a chief of staff that not only thinks like that but writes like that....What on Earth is wrong with him? ... I leave that up there because I think people should know."

Strangely enough, Kieklak's boss -- state senator Lisa Boscola -- was reluctant to fire him. Although he eventually handed in his resignation, she did not immediately accept it.

The Country's Indifference

The actions of each of the participants may seem surprising and extreme. Sadly, they are all too commonplace and mirror what's been happening across the country in recent years.

Comments similar in tone to Kieklak's have been made by Republican strategist Roger Stone and MSNBC correspondent David Shuster. Even 2008 presidential candidate John McCain laughed when a supporter called his opponent Hillary Clinton a bitch during a closed-door meeting.​​

The sexism faced by McCain's running mate Sarah Palin did not end with her candidacy. She still encounters it as she campaigns for other candidates nationwide, as did the following women in their respective 2010 races: gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell, and incumbent ​Kirsten Gillibrand.

The CEO's Insistence

But what happened to Sam Bennett? Although she lost the House race, her experiences on the campaign trail led her to advocate for women and against media sexism as CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation. Today, Bennett is able to effect change on a national level as she advances an agenda to call out sexism and insist on media accountability when gender-biased coverage of female candidates occurs. She is determined to see that up-and-coming women in politics never endure what she had to suffer through:

It's time to say, enough is enough. No longer will we sit idly by while reporters analyze the wardrobe of women leaders instead of their achievements. No longer will a woman's menstruation be a deterrent for support. We will not accept talks of cougarsMILFs, or Ice Queens. Commanding and decisive women will not be called nagging or shrill; nor will their empathy be dismissed as 'too emotional.'

This all-too-common sexist language has been damaging the campaigns and careers of women candidates for years....

I will not rest until no woman has to endure what I did when I ran for U.S. Congress. When I was attacked, no one said a word.

Sources

Bennet, Sam.

 "This just in: The measure of a female candidate isn't in her measurements." HuffingtonPost.com. 16 September 2010.

Drobnyk, Josh. "Boscola's top aide shows off vocabulary." The Morning Call. 13 June 2007.

Micek, John L. and Josh Drobnyk. "Boscola's aide offers to quit." The Morning Call. 14 June 2007.

O'Hare, Bernie. "Boscola's Congressional Hopes Fade, Thanks to Aide's Sexist Remarks." Lehigh Valley Ramblings. 13 June 2007.