She Should Run doesn’t just encourage women to run for office, it also provides advice on how to handle sexist slights by their opponents—and how to capitalize on them.
Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh was never known for having a keen sense of tact.
But during a particularly raucous debate last October against his then Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, he hurled an invective that was surprising even for him.
“I was marching in a parade in Schaumburg Sunday, two days before the Democratic convention,” he said holding up a photo, “when Tammy Duckworth was on stage down in Charlotte—if you can look at the picture—picking out a dress for her speech Tuesday night.”
Walsh’s intention was to portray Duckworth as more interested in the national spotlight than the mundane concerns of the Chicago suburb congressional district they were competing to represent.
But for the nonpartisan group She Should Run—which is solely dedicated to galvanizing women of all political persuasions to pursue elected office—the moment offered a textbook example of how to handle what they see as a gender-based slight no man would ever confront.
“I do sometimes look at the clothes that I wear,” replied Duckworth, the Iraq War vet who lost both of legs in a helicopter accident. “But for most of my adult life, I’ve worn one color—it’s called camouflage.”
With that calm but pithy reply, Duckworth not only won the debate—she went on to crush the tea party congressman by nearly 10 points a month later.
Now She Should Run is using that exchange as a teachable moment for all potential women contemplating political campaigns.
The key: She quickly identified the offense, but didn’t dwell on it—and then immediately pivoted to her strength.
“It isn’t just focusing on the sexism,” noted Clare Bresnahan, the She Should Run programs director who is organizing the “Name It, Change It” seminars designed to train female candidates. “Duckworth calls it out and then pivots back to her message. It doesn’t need to be a whole diatribe about women it politics. You bring it back to your own personal story.”
The seminars were borne out of March polling conducted by the group that showed that gender-coded language focused on appearances and stereotypes drastically hurt female candidates’ standing with voters.
Yet, the research also found that if the female candidate—or a third party entity—clearly called out the sexist remark, she regained the lost support and even had the potential of expanding it.
“Responding herself showed the biggest gains,” wrote pollster Celinda Lake in her report.
But how exactly and when to respond is where the strategic sessions come in.
Attended by campaign staffers, political operatives and first-time candidate from the local to national level, the seminars delve into real-world examples of sexism in politics.
Whether it be the Boston Herald dubbing Massachusetts Senate candidate an “ice queen” and “mean girl.”
Or a Democratic political action committee running a kitchen-themed attack ad against an Arizona Republican.
Or a city councilman’s portrayal of an Omaha mayoral candidate as a stripper.
The reaction from candidates, according to Bresnahan, is usually a sigh of relief.
“It’s like, ‘I know these things happen and am relieved there’s a way to respond.’ And their instincts are usually right,” she said.
Perhaps an even bigger challenge for the endeavor is attempting to change attitudes in the media.
Sometimes, well-intended, colorful coverage of a woman’s appearance—Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s attractiveness, for instance or Hillary Clinton’s new wavy hairdo—can be just as damaging to overall perceptions, according to the Women’s Media Center, which partnered on the project.
As a male writer myself, I asked if it was ever appropriate to reference a female candidate’s appearance for descriptive purposes or editorial flare?
The answer: Only if you’re just as apt to mention his.
“Think about the Rule of Reversibility,” Rachel Larris of the Women’s Media Center told me. “If you find her clothes to be a scene-setting detail, then you must give equal credence to his.”
Added Bresnahan: “It’s not about good intentions or a compliment. When we start to talk about women’s appearances, we put them in stereotypes and it damages them with voters.”
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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