Entertainer and presidential candidate Donald Trump's shot at Fox News panelist Megyn Kelly revealed something women feared about the 2016 election: It's already open season on female candidates. And it's only going to get worse.
After the 2008 election, a Daily Beast poll revealed that 40 percent of men admitted to having sexist views toward the notion of a female president, agreeing with the statement that men are "naturally more suited" to being in the Oval Office. That poll showed three times as many women thought there was a gender bias in the media as those who disagreed. At a conference on women in politics, a panelist told me about a consultant who confided that in a future campaign against Hillary Clinton, he would use subtle imagery in ads, like phases of the moon.
The only surprise one might have had about Trump's comments toward Kelly after the debate was how soon they occurred in the election season, and how direct they were.
They were also unnecessary. Initial polls showed Trump with a lead going into the debate, and one going out of it, winning the snap poll among watchers. There were plenty who felt that Kelly and her co-panelists from Fox News were out to deliberately weaken the Trump campaign. Already, signatures were being gathered to keep her out of future debates.
Trump's comments talking about "blood coming out of her whatever," were more than just some rantings of an unseasoned political candidate making a gaffe. It was a trial balloon of sorts. Would such sexism be "fair game" in the 2016 election? It was a preview of what Clinton can expect, or maybe Carly Fiorina, if she starts polling in the double-digits at any time during her campaign.
Business executive and GOP candidate Fiorina expressed outrage, admitting she wasn't surprised to see such comments. On the other hand, she's probably grateful for the ability to stick up for women like Kelly, so we won't notice that she doesn't support paid maternity leave for women, leaving it up to each company to decide whether to grant it.
Trump did not spare Fiorina his contempt claiming that listening to her for more than ten minutes can give you a massive headache, a big switch from a few days ago, when he claimed she won the debate among the second-tier GOP candidates (often dubbed the "kiddie table debate" or "happy hour debate.").
Neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson sought to take on the role of Kelly's gallant protector, criticizing Trump's attack on her. Carson was then reminded that this is what political correctness is all about, and there's nothing he hates more than political correctness. So he claimed criticizing Trump's sexism wasn't political correctness, but merely "being courteous." All Carson showed was that he's either a flip flopper, or doesn't really understand what political correctness is. Given his naiveté on so many issues, it is probably the latter.
The question is now whether GOP voters and other candidates will hold Trump accountable for his words, or whether Trump will continue as the front-runner, leading politicians to conclude that either voters don't mind sexist attacks or such sexist attacks work, and will keep launching them. Without a vigorous response, it'll be open season on women who seek public office.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.