March 28, 2014 | by Lateefah Williams
D.C.’s female candidates face sexism
Anita Bonds, Lateefah Williams, Bill O'Field, Democratic Party, Washington D.C., Council, gay news, Washington Blade

During this election, Anita Bonds, center, is constantly the target of many sexist and ageist remarks on Twitter, such as Grandma Bonds, that are intended to demean her. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro)

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 lateefah_williams@msn.com or follow her @lateefahwms.

8 Comments
  • You’re the first Anita person that I’ve seen advocate within DC4D. I’m probably going to attend Anita’s Meet and Greet and reassess where I stand in the at-large race then. Can you email me personally to discuss why you chose Anita? I know that you wish you remain publicly neutral and I have great respect for that.

  • Lateefah Williams

    Thanks for your response, Jason. I’m publicly neutral in the mayoral race, but not in the at-large race. I’m supporting Anita in that race and I am open about it, which is why I disclosed in the article that I am working with the campaign. However, the focus of the article is sexism that various women candidates face, regardless of if I support them or not.

  • peter rosenstein

    This is a really good and very accurate column. I have worked for women candidates for many years and we haven’t yet dealt with the kind of insults and criticisms that women candidates get that male candidates don’t have to put up with. Women have to worry about what will be said about their hair, their clothes, their wrinkles, whether they are too strong or too soft; the kind of things no man ever has to deal with. It is time for real equality and we will see that when a campaign that a woman is in will focus only on the issues. I am afraid it won’t happen in my lifetime.

  • Even gay men don’t recognize sexism sometimes. I’m saddened to hear of those incredibly stupid remarks, Lateefah.

    Anita looks for and finds the talent and good in everyone. It’s really important to have people like that on the Council.

    That is not saying a thing against Nate. Sometime DC will make a place for his talent and leadership. But Anita has long had first dibs on our votes this election.

    (No matter who she shares her coat tails with.)
    ;)

  • This commentary would be more persuasive with less broad generalizing and more actual examples. It would also be stronger if the few examples were more convincing.

    The "grandma" line is obviously an age reference. Despite the easy use of the term "ageism," however, post-retirement age is not necessarily an irrelevant factor for voters. The irrelevance of age is often less clear than the irrelevance of race or gender. If something is relevant, as age may be, I'm not sure objecting to crass references to it in a rough and tumble campaign carries quite the sense of bigotry that the term "ageism" implies.

    The "Chocolate City Mamma" line strikes me as particularly objectionable on grounds of race. It is hard to separate out the impropriety from gender and the impropriety from race in a comment like that. One is at risk of trying to use the racial impropriety to make the gender impropriety feel greater than it is.

    Indeed, the "grandma" or "mamma" lines are more ambiguous as examples of sexism. Would "Grandpa Gray" or "Chocolate City Papa" really be reverse-sexist? We have gendered terms for parents, grandparents, and such. Are these really designed to highlight gender? I see them as mainly highlighting age and race, respectively.

    As for the comparisons to Sharon Pratt Kelly, I imagine they are a response to the other camp's racist comparisons of Gray to Barry. It's a bit disingenuous to omit that significant context in thinking about the Kelly comparison. Absent the Gray-Barry comparisons, I'm not sure the Bowser-Kelly retaliatory comparisons would have emerged to any remotely similar extent.

  • It’s her “old thinking” that I have an issue with, not her “old age.”

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