Women’s History Month — A Tribute to Political Pioneers

This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I will be looking at six women who made significant strides in the participation, dialogue and representation of women within America’s political system. You may know all about some of these women and nothing about others — but their political impacts can still be seen and felt across the nation today. Let’s start with three women who achieved remarkable “firsts” with America’s political system.

Lydia Chapin Taft1. Lydia Chapin TaftIn 1756 she became the first women to become a legal voter in America. She voted in three different town hall meetings when ” … the townspeople of Uxbridge voted to allow Lydia Taft, Josiah’s widow, to vote as his proxy, out of respect for the large contribution Josiah had made to the town.” Ten years ago (almost to the day) a portion of a Rhode Island highway has been named the “Lydia Taft Highway.”

 

Victoria Woodhull2. Victoria Woodhull — An extremely public advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, Woodhull addressed Congress about the issue and distributed a ‘radical’ publication by the name of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. In 1872 she ran for the US presidency under her Equal Rights Party ticket. The campaign, however, quickly went sour when Woodhull began to fight her opponents in her publication. She was scrutinized as a radical for her support of socialism and her unconventional relationship history.

3Jeannette Rankin. Jeannette Rankin — The first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on November 7, 1916 (before women had the right to vote). Rankin set the stage for women generations after her to be politically active and involved. Rankin was unafraid to voice her opinion publicly, as demonstrated when she was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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America v. the Rest of the World — Where We Sit in Terms of Women in Politics

On March 11, 2014 UN Women Deputy Executive Director Policy and Program, John Hendra, made a statement during the “Where Are the Women in Politics” conference held in New York City, discussing the need for cultural transformation in order for political participation and equality. Not surprisingly, he mentions the need for a change in the way media interacts with these politicians:

“Achieving gender equality in political participation requires that we address the full range of barriers women face in competing in elections. As we know, these barriers include gender bias and discrimination, cultural attitudes that see women as less able and worthy to lead, the challenge of raising sufficient campaign funds, tackling corruption and vote buying, and inadequate support from political parties and the media.” -John Hendra

Anders Johnson, also speaking in this conference, says that it is not the developed countries that are leading the way in gaining more women in their political systems, but the countries that are developing institutions after monolithic regimes that are coming to terms that you need women, as well as men, to successfully and democratically run a country.

This is a bold statement, but surprisingly true. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union, several countries surpass the United States in terms of percentage of parliament seats held by women. A few include:

  • Rwanda at 63.8%
  • Andorra at 50%
  • Cuba at 48.9%
  • South Africa at 44.8%
  • Senegal at 43.3%

(All statistics from the IPU, taken from 2013.)

With all of these percentages exceedingly more than double the U.S.’ tiny 18.5%, it’s clearly time something changed within “the most powerful free nation” in the world. While this issue stems far beyond media coverage, I don’t think it’s a bad place to start in order to revamp our country’s attitudes, biases and predispositions surrounding women in positions of leadership and political power.

Reality v. Fiction: Mirroring Each Other in Misrepresentation

Visual Representation of Congrees Make-Up

By Dana Rieck

America’s political reality seems uninspiring to some when it comes to the productive presentation of women, especially since, according to Rutgers, a mere 18.5 percent of the 133rd U.S. Congress is comprised of women. Taking this into consideration, some experts say it’s time to compare the fictional manifestation of women to real-life female politicians within our media system.

Cara Buckley, a Colorado State University communications professor, said she thinks fictional representations of female politicians are much kinder than those found in news media outlets, partly due to the fear of coming under harsher scrutiny for sexist content.  “Unfortunately, I believe it is non-fictional representations that create the most cultural side effects,” Buckley wrote in an email. “Given that these are real politicians being reported about on news shows that we still assume as a society are factual, we begin to understand the news representations of these women as examples of ‘who these women really are’ (even though, of course, it is often just someone’s opinion of them).”

This fear of scrutiny might be why the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that,  “From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5 percent of all working characters are male … a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50 percent of the workforce.”

While these statistics can cause alarm in respect to gender role development in children, it’s not all bad. Lauren East, a counseling graduate student at the University of Northern Colorado who holds her undergraduate degree in psychology, said that people in a child‘s life can counteract gender representation found on the screen.

“Although the media representation does lack a female role model presence, childhood career development can be formed by role models in their everyday lives,” East said. “I think the best thing a parent can do for their child’s career and gender role development is model the behaviors they want their children to recognize.”

Even so, it’s slightly comforting for some people to know mainstream television has recently seen several inspiring female roles including Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus inVeep,” Mel Burke in “Melissa and Joey” and Leslie Knope in “Parks and Rec.”

Fort Collins resident Michelle Oldham, an avid “Parks and Rec” fan, finds comfort that Knope’s goofy character still manages to portray power and confidence within the show.

“She doesn’t use her sexuality to get ahead, she uses her intelligence,” Oldham explains. “I feel like it shows healthy relationships between grown women.”

While small improvements are being seen in American media every year, Buckley advises viewers to “…seek out resources outside of the U.S. American mainstream media,” to combat opposing negative representations.  This advice will have to do, at least until America’s mass communicators are pushed by their consumer base to turn toward more true-to-life representations in all information outlets.

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“Sexism Sells — But We’re Not Buying It”

Today, I look to take six minutes of your time to illustrate the expansive nature of sexist political coverage. While it’s an issue that seems, on the surface, to plague only certain news channels, newscasters, or ideologies — the truth is you can find it anywhere on your TV. While the video below (Courtesy of The Women’s Media Center) was uploaded just shy of six years ago, it still rings true today. According to Rutgers, a mere 18.5% of the current 113th US Congress is comprised of women, making the US “… 68th in the world for representation of women in our congress.” Clearly a segment of the news media takes advantage of this ‘non-threatening’ number, some so far as to acknowledge their sexism — “I know that’s a sexist comment, but there’s truth to it.” Watch the video below, then tell me what your take on the news media’s relationship with female politicians.

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A Thousand Words

This may be a new concept , but a picture is worth a thousand words (I know, I know — I’m a genius). That is why today I’ve decided to focus on magazine covers and their relationships with female politicians — which have been less than productive in whole. Magazine covers, in a world where people are overstimulated by messages from every medium all at once (and all the time), are much like articles — very few people (only 20%) read past the headline. So when a publication represents a politician (especially a female one) in a very particular light through the picture on their cover, they know that for the majority of its readers that picture is sending the main message being received. While the magazine covers I have chosen for this blog depict two different stereotypes (the man crusher and the “sex kitten”), these aren’t the only ones posing a problem to women’s productive involvement in society:

“A recent UNESCO report describes the litany of common images of women in the media: ‘the glamorous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hardfaced corporate and political climber.’  The report, released in 2009, states that, at the current rate of progress on stereotyping women, it will take another 75 years to achieve gender equality in the media.” —World Savvy

Take a peek at some of these harmful magazine covers below– and read what their critics have to say about them. You might be surprised to find how recently these covers have been published, as well as how familiar you might be with them already.

West’s Message to Political Journalists: “Hey, write shit that’s relevant”

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In response to the recent coverage of Wendy Davis on the cover of time, Jezebel writer Lindy West decided to write a sarcastic, witty guide titled, “How to Write about Female Politicians Without Being a Sexist Shithead.” As she (sarcastically) states in her article,

“So why do publications have such a hard time writing about female politicians? After all, it doesn’t seem THAT complicated. All you have to do is write about the stuff that the politician did without bringing their genitals and/or gender presentation into it.”

While it is worth reading the article in its entirety to fully experience how West humorously packages such a powerful message, I’ll summarize a few main take-aways:

  • Their appearance, generally speaking, can and should be left out of a politically motivated article.
  • Leave double standards behind (he’s bold for doing it, she’s a bitch).
  • Cover what’s actually important.

While this message may come across crass at times,  (a Time writer) points out: “A study out of Occidental College looked at media coverage of Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential candidate in the 2008 and found that  in the new media landscape, an even greater percentage of coverage was focused  a female candidate’s appearance than it had  in 1984 when  Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic veep nominee.”

While the times are-a-changin’, it’s clear these changes might not be what our culture really needs. It’s up to political journalists and their publications to move the change forward, and keep us from falling back into the dark ages.

Content v. Frequency — A Gaping Divide

Since it’s been found that while amount of media coverage between male and female candidates is rapidly closing, focus within the academic community has been shifted to the gender bias seen within this media coverage. According to a Political Parity article, “One of the most consistent—and persistent—findings to emerge from studies is that women candidates receive more attention to appearance, personality, and family compared to men.”  And so, candidates must constantly work at maintaining an appearance as to not play into stereotypes.

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Thankfully, though, these women are not alone. As Political Parity explains, “A new campaign aimed at combating sexism in the media holds promise. Called “Name It. Change It.”, the project monitors press treatment of women candidates and documents sexist coverage.” Name It. Change It. Much like other activist groups aimed at calling out the media for inappropriate content, its main goal is to draw attention to sexist political coverage, and by doing so, bringing it to an end one article at a time.