Women candidates have to overcome many barriers when seeking elected office. Sadly, this is also the case here in the District. In addition to the “normal” political nastiness that characterizes competitive D.C. races, women candidates also face sexism. The sexism includes double standards concerning appearance, sexist statements and passive-aggressive comments that are designed to question a candidate’s competence.
Last week, I had the privilege to participate in the DC Federation of Democratic Women’s (DCFDW) Lobby Day. We spent an entire day at the John A. Wilson Building, where we met with the mayor and the majority of D.C. Council members, including the top mayoral contenders. These legislators met with us in half hour intervals and answered our questions about issues that affect women in the District. I was there as a member of the DCFDW and not as a columnist, so I’m not going to report on specifics from the meetings.
Events like this, however, tend to serve as a visual reminder of the lack of women on the Council. It makes you wonder why this is the case in a city where women make up the majority of the electorate. There are numerous reasons and I’m sure the reasons vary for every woman who has considered running for office. The maliciousness of local elections is probably a factor for many women, as it is for many men.
As women (yes, I’m generalizing), we tend to be concerned with the impact that our actions will have on those close to us. So, even when we make the determination that we can handle anything our opponent throws at us, we tend to consider the impact a vicious public campaign will have on our children or significant others. Thus, the current political climate does not make women particularly eager to run for office. Campaigns should serve as a vehicle to vet candidates on key issues. Yet, all too often, they serve as a means to make personal attacks that have nothing to do with a candidate’s ability to legislate and serve the public.
Women candidates tend to be targeted in a different way than male candidates. A common way to attack a woman candidate without appearing to be blatantly sexist is to refer to her as being “too nice.” It is one of those code phrases designed to let people know that she’s “just not ready for the big leagues,” yet being too nice is never mentioned as a weakness for male candidates. Rather, it is perceived as a strength because it signifies that the candidate is a consensus builder. But then, male candidates do not battle against a presumption of weakness, so people are able to see them as both nice and competent. Voters tend to place women in narrower boxes. A woman who is reflective and likes to build consensus is too nice and not assertive enough. A woman who is too aggressive is called a bitch. Women have to navigate the line just right to not be seen as either too weak or too assertive.
During last year’s special election, Council member Anita Bonds was referred to as “Chocolate City Mamma,” in an anonymous op-ed that ran in the Hill Rag. The publishers saw nothing wrong with publishing this article and the article remains online to this day. During this election, Bonds is constantly the target of many sexist and ageist remarks on Twitter, such as Grandma Bonds, that are intended to demean her. This type of sexist and racist innuendo makes other women pause when contemplating running for office. (In full disclosure, I am working with the Bonds campaign on communications.)
You also see sexist insinuations directed toward mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser. I have decided to remain neutral in the mayoral race, but it is difficult not to notice blatant sexism. There are people, both male and female, who reference Sharon Pratt Kelly when discussing their “fear” of a potential Bowser administration. While I can think of both pros and cons of supporting Bowser, just as I can for the other major mayoral candidates, the potential that she will suddenly morph into Sharon Pratt Kelly is not one of my concerns. Bowser and Kelly have nothing in common except their gender. People do not see the double standard of comparing a woman candidate to a woman that previously held the job, even if they have completely different experiences, but no one compares the male candidates to men who have previously held the position, solely based on their gender.
Women candidates should not be given a pass on criticism regarding their policies. However, if candidates, voters and the media would stick to the issues, we may be able to attract a more diverse set of candidates, which would benefit everyone.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @lateefahwms.