Behaviors & Skills
Will there ever be a woman elected as president of the United States?
By Jenée Stanfield and Gina Hathorn
In the 2008 primary election, Hillary Clinton gathered 18 million votes, more than any other candidate in primary history, yet her party gave the nomination to another (male) candidate, Barack Obama. Some Clinton supporters—including actress, author, and journalist Anita Finlay—believe that gender was a factor in that election.
In her new book Dirty Words on Clean Skin, Finlay draws on the 2008 election as a case study to illustrate the bias against women in politics and the media. "Well before the Primaries," she explains, "political pundits, even some news anchors, were a little too eager to discredit Hillary Clinton. I asked myself, 'Who benefits?' The harder they pounded, the more curious I became. I began to question big media's addiction to painting Hillary as a shrew."
According to Finlay, Clinton isn't the only woman who has been mistreated and had her campaign undermined by the media. "Women [candidates] get three times the [media] coverage on their appearance as their male counterparts. And men get 68 percent more coverage on their issues than their women opponents," she says.
Finlay goes on to say, "If you look at what the mainstream media does, they focus a lot more on a man's issues, and so automatically it makes a woman seem as though she's not to be taken seriously. That's not because she doesn't have a serious platform to put forward. It's because they’re not reporting on it." The media provides an angle on a story, reminds Finlay; however, to get the full truth of a story requires digging deeper, which most people don't have the time or inclination to do.
In an article in the Chicago Sun-Times (Oct. 6, 2012), Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and possible Illinois gubernatorial candidate was asked if she felt that she could still raise her children the way that she wanted to if she were governor. She answered, "My husband helps take care of our kids. But, I think more people should ask that of men running for office as well." The reporter pressed her further on the question, and she reminded the reporter that plenty of women juggle and that she currently holds the office of attorney general. The reporter then challenged her saying that being governor is a more demanding job than her current position. Madigan finally responded, "All of these jobs are very demanding. And people who, unfortunately, have to work three jobs and don't necessarily have health-care coverage — they're even in a worse situation. So nobody needs to give any pity on what elected officials have to endure."
The media's coverage of female candidates often undermines their credibility such as the questioning of Attorney General Madigan's childcare, but some coverage is downright insulting to the candidates with personal attacks on their appearance, personality, and families.
In 2008, Chris Mathews of MSNBC (host of Hardball) reported, "[T]he reason [Hillary Clinton's] a U.S. Senator, the reason she's a candidate for President, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be senator of New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win there on her own merit."
Other reporters in 2008 brought up Hillary's appearance and complained about her laugh. She was called a "bitch," "shrew," and "harpy." Along with these insults, visual vilification was another technique used by the media against Clinton, which Finlay discusses in her book. This involves using photographs of the candidate specifically picked to make them look unattractive. For Clinton, this included pictures of her in mid sentence or word, which made her look as as if she were yelling, angry, or hysterical. Finlay believes, "That is a way you can actually sway voters away from a woman at the voting booth." A qualified female candidate might lose her election simply because of strategically promoted unflattering pictures. Some argue that's what happened in the 2008 election.
Finlay asserts that visual vilification still occurs to women in media today, despite those that claim our media is free of gender bias. In an article on BlogHer, Finlay dissects the holes in a study by Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes who maintain that "gender bias has almost disappeared." Not quite argues Finlay. The research from this study was gathered from 4,748 local newspapers in 2010 congressional races, while not including television media, which they admitted, was harder on female candidates. "You can't tell if the research is valid or not, because we didn't have any woman running for high office. The true test will be when a woman once again contests for the Presidency," says Finlay, who is critical of the study's "conclusive" findings.
Citing a 2012 Fourth Estate study that logged 51,000 quotes from both television and print media, Finlay points to its findings as further proof that gender bias still pervades the media. According to this study, men were quoted over women five to one regarding women's health, and on foreign and economic policy, men were quoted three or four to one over women. Finlay believes these numbers reveal a troubling presence of sexism and gender bias controlling the messages in the media.
Controlling the media narrative is a critical issue according to Finlay. "We have got to even out the control of the narrative," she says. "Until women gain control of the media narrative things will not change," she asserts.
Finlay firmly believes that gender bias in the media stems from who controls it—for example, men columnists outnumber women two to one. According to two recent studies, female TV news directors accounted for 28.3% of the positions in 2011, while female radio news directors plummeted to 10.7% in 2011, down from 20% in 2010 (Media Report to Women). This unequal balance of control creates a narrative with a singular perspective, which creates further barriers for women to hurdle in order to receive positive coverage in the media. The roots of this bias are demonstrated in coverage of so-called "female issues," namely, child rearing and reproductive rights. Using the 2012 election as evidence, Finlay witnessed male candidates "pandering" to women by including debate concerning reproductive rights in order to retain votes. She asks the critical question: "Why do male candidates not spend more time including women on other vital issues, such as the economy?” Finlay quoted Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: “Every issue is a woman’s issue.”
It would be easy to blame the gender bias on a media that is mostly run and owned by men. However, according to Finlay, women journalists are just as guilty of undermining other women as well. "It has to do with the psychological factor that's known as 'bonding with the offender,'" she says. "Many times women, in order to maintain a seat at the table, consciously or unconsciously, wind up beating up another woman so that they won't be picked on." After the 2008 Democratic National Convention Glamour magazine's Tracy Lester wrote a short blog post regarding Hillary's outfit. Lester complimented Hillary for her bold color choice, but then put her down for choosing a "go-to pantsuit." This kind of woman-to-woman nitpicking is not helpful.
The abuse of women candidates in politics and media makes their path to election more difficult, which might explain why women make up over 50% of the United States population but only 18.9% of the members of Congress. This is troubling because it means that women are being underrepresented in government, but it hits even closer to home as well. "This demeaning rhetoric we hear in the public sphere is training us to talk about all women this way," Finlay argues. Politics and work life are not separate. They are interwoven. Finlay believes that it all works the same way, “I see gender bias where I work all the time. It's as simple as taking a woman less seriously.”
Finlay views the political as personal. “I wrote Dirty Words on Clean Skin as a first person narrative because I wanted the reader to join me ‘in the trenches.’ This is not just about the trashing of an icon, namely Hillary Clinton. Media bias affects the way we see women and how women see themselves,” she states emphatically.”
Despite these damning facts, women are making progress. After the 2012 election, women currently hold 20% of seats in the Senate. Also in this election, Finlay noted that both sides of the political arena treated Hillary with more respect and dignity—a caveat of which could be that Hillary posed no political threat. President Bill Clinton's appearance at the 2012 Democratic National Convention resulted in the number one hashtag on Twitter, "#Hillary2016." Hillary also reached a new level of cool with the Tumblr "Texts from Hillary." These witty posts have created a new, hip persona for Hillary, which may be useful if she decides to run for Commander in Chief in 2016.
Though much is unknown about the future, Finlay predicts that there will be tremendous pressure to have a female candidate on the ticket in the 2016 election and hopes that the parties don't settle for a Vice President slot.
In looking forward to the future, Finlay gives us this advice: "If we are ever to have competent female leadership then we need to stop trashing competent women, otherwise a qualified woman bruising her head on the "highest, hardest glass ceiling" is as close as she's ever going to get to the Presidency." And worse, what extraordinary leadership might the United States lose if it were to keep this glass ceiling in tact?
Dirty Words on Clean Skin spent three months as Amazon’s top selling Women in Politics book, and has been adopted by Pasadena City College in California as part of its curriculum. Dirty Words on Clean Skin is available in print or electronically through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
As a result of writing Dirty Words on Clean Skin, Anita Finlay has been sought for commentary by media outlets; she currently serves as a radio commentator and speaker on two nationally syndicated shows: America’s Radio News Network and the Jerry Doyle Show. Anita Finlay may be reached through Allen Media Strategies, c/o Will Bower, (202)365-2536, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finlay, Anita. Dirty Words on Clean Skin, Golden Middleway Books, 2012.
Finlay, Anita. "Study Finding We Are Done with Gender Bias Omits Data." BlogHer, accessed Jan 2013. http://www.blogher.com/study-finding-we-are-done-gender-bias-omits-important-data
Gibbons, Sheila. "Industry Statistics." Media Report to Women accessed February 2013. http://www.mediareporttowomen.com/statistics.htm
Lester, Tracey Lomrantz. " Hillary Pulls Out a Pantsuit for the DNC: The Woman Knows What Works." Glamour accessed Jan 2013. http://www.glamour.com/fashion/blogs/slaves-to-fashion/2008/08/hillary-clinton-pulls-a-pantsu.html
McKinney, Dave, Fran Spielman, and Natasha Korecki. "Lisa Madigan refuses to tip hand on governor's race." Chicago Sun Times, accessed Jan 2013. http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/14938617-505/lisa-madigan-refuses-to-tip-hand-on-governors-race.html
Texts from Hillary: http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/