Will mean politics drive good women away?
Last month, Huffington Post contributor Peggy Drexler posed the following question to her readers: "Will mean politics scare off good women?"
Drexler expressed a fear I've had since well before the November election. In the Minnesota Women's Press last August, I wrote that the obstacles faced by candidates (and friends) Farheen Hakeem and Laurie Olmon were a powerful check on my own political ambition, yet I held out hope that they might eventually talk me into it.
In the months since that essay appeared, both women lost their campaigns. Like Drexler, I worry that women at home and across the country will lose something else, too: their interest in engaging in the political system at all.
By late October, embarrassing party photos of candidates Christine O'Donnell and Krystal Ball were circulating online. Unlike embarrassing photos of male candidates (remember Sen. Scott Brown's cheesecake shots in Cosmopolitan?), these were offered as evidence that the women in them lacked the judgment to serve in federal office. This phenomenon is common enough that feminist writers have a name for it: "slut-shaming."
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The website that broke the O'Donnell story, Gawker.com, claimed that O'Donnell's own stands of moral outrage justified the retaliatory airing of her dirty laundry, but most women I knew reacted otherwise. The National Organization for Women (of which I am a state leader), while no fan of O'Donnell's politics, issued a press release that denounced the whole mess as "public sexual harassment."
In October I watched the infamous YouTube clip in which a female MoveOn organizer was kicked in the head by a Rand Paul supporter. My revulsion had not yet worn off when a mutual friend e-mailed with the news that Laurie Olmon's campaign signs had been vandalized: persons unknown scrawled "baby killer" across them in pink lipstick. The threats had hit home.
A lipstick smear is no head-stomp, but the intention behind it was the same. To anyone active in the prochoice movement, it's understood that "baby killer" is not meant to be a literal accusation; it is meant to intimidate. It transforms a debate into a fight, a discussion into a brawl, and a disagreement into a melee that gives someone a concussion.
In Drexler's essay, she quotes Sam Donaldson as saying "only amateurs stay mad." Laurie Olmon assured her many fans and friends that she would be back on the campaign trail in 2012, and Christine O'Donnell promises to remain in the public eye, whether NOW likes it or not. I consider myself a notch above amateur in the activist game, but the negativity drained my commitment and energy, as Drexler guessed it would, which is why she wrote her online pep talk.
What Drexler didn't know when she wrote her piece, however, was that it would run the day that the U.S. Senate planned to hold hearings on the Paycheck Fairness Act, or that this "common-sense law" (in President Obama's words) would be blocked by newly antagonistic women.
This bill, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and allow employees access to salary records without fear of reprisal, was introduced in January 2009 and passed through the House quickly. Data from the National Partnership on Women & Families showed that 84 percent of the voting public supported strengthening regulations of this sort, yet the threat of Republican filibuster stopped the Paycheck Fairness Act dead in its tracks. Three women senators who voted to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas -- refused to allow this very similar bill a hearing; perhaps these good women were scared off by 2010's mean politics, just as Drexler feared.
The rejection of the Paycheck Fairness Act is a truly devastating blow to American women, most of whom will never run for office. This will affect millions of working women and the families who count on their earnings for survival. A high-school-educated woman stands to earn $700,000 less than her male counterpart over the course of her working lifetime.
Will good women enter a political landscape this hostile? I have my suspicions, but I hope they're wrong.
Shannon Drury, president of Minnesota NOW, is a writer, at-home parent and community activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women's Press, with additional work appearing in HipMama, Literary Mama and Skirt magazines. She blogs at www.theradicalhousewife.com and is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.