Listen: Beyond Clinton, Female Candidates Have Long Faced Sexism

Shannon O'Brien discusses the sexism she faced in her run for governor of Massachusetts

WASHINGTON ― In her memoir on her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton attempts to unlock just how she lost to Donald Trump, a fading reality-television star with zero political experience and a mansion or two full of baggage. Among the many reasons she lists in What Happened is her own misreading of the country’s mood, Russia interference and, of course, then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation into her email use late in the race.

Clinton is also unequivocal about one other factor. “This has to be said: sexism and misogyny played a role in the 2016 presidential election,” she writes. This wasn’t just manifested in the way her outfits were analyzed or her illness in September became a preoccupation. It was also in the way Trump and his supporters seemed to get enraged at the very idea of her as president. Misogyny was big business at the Republican National Convention

Sexism may not have ultimately determined the outcome of the election. But it was there, always there, a current that influenced both campaigns and the media coverage. And women who’ve run for office? They can relate. Oh boy can they relate. On this week’s episode of our “Candidate Confessional” podcast, we decided it was a good time to run our interview with Shannon O’Brien who knows a thing or two about sexism in politics.

In an earlier episode, former Texas Sen. Wendy Davis detailed her own experiences with these issues when she ran for governor. And Sandra Fluke, who sought a California state Senate seat, told the podcast that she considered electoral politics as “the most sexist in our society.” O’Brien takes us further back to a time when female candidates could still be portrayed as dogs in campaign ads. 

You might remember O’Brien who occasionally popped up as a commentator on cable news shows during President Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign against former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. A decade earlier, she ran against him in her attempt to become the first woman elected governor in Massachusetts. Romney ended up defeating her in a closely fought contest.

O’Brien had been a political lifer. After stints in the legislature and as the state’s treasurer, she sought the state’s highest office. And Romney, well, he was very much a political novice. His big claim to fame was running the Olympics in Utah and getting pummeled by former Sen. Ted Kennedy in a Senate race.

And yet, the media seemed in awe of Romney.

“I remember one television reporter breathlessly coming up to me asking me the question ’What is it like to run against you know an icon?” O’Brien recalled in the podcast. She wasn’t as in awe of her opponent as the reporter. “I thought he was beatable.”

O’Brien knew that she’d have to work harder than Romney. She still remembers the letter she received from one angry constituent a few years earlier. She’d had her daughter during her first year as state treasurer. Her husband took care of their daughter while she continued to tend to the state’s coffers. This angered the constituent who wrote that O’Brien should be ashamed of herself for going back to work.

In her race against Romney, O’Brien recalled having to speed home from the campaign trail for a Halloween photo-op. In front of the press, she walked her toddler (dressed as a princess) around the block. The campaign didn’t want her to be perceived as a bad mother. During our interview, O’Brien repeatedly emphasized that female candidates constantly must find an impossible balance. In her case, it was balancing the traditional motherhood role and having to prove she was more worthy than a male candidate.

“Women have to work a lot harder at demonstrating their credentials for voters,” she said, adding later: “You are sort of pushing up against the preconceived notion of what a leader looks like, what a governor looks like.”

O’Brien struggled to find her equilibrium. Romney portrayed her as a sleepy basset hound in a campaign ad. In one debate, he chided her as being unbecoming when she called out his wobbly stance on abortion. She got tagged as being overly aggressive. 

“As a woman you can’t cross that line,” she explained “And that is again one of the balancing problems that women have. They want you to be tough enough that they know you’re not going to get walked over when you’re in office. But you can’t be too tough because then you’re mean. … That is a very, very difficult thing.”

Listen to the latest episode of “Candidate Confessional” above. 

“Candidate Confessional” is produced by Zach Young. To listen to this podcast later, download it on Apple PodcastsWhile you’re there, please rate and review our show. To subscribe, visit the following: Apple Podcasts / Acast / RadioPublic / Google Play / Stitcher / RSS



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