Now that Hillary Clinton appears to be officially tossing her hat in the ring in an announcement expected this weekend, activists are bracing for what could be a second round of sexist coverage.
From one person at a rally yelling “iron my shirt” to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews calling her a “she-devil” on air, the coverage of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign sparked a national conversation on how female candidates should be talked about in media coverage. As Clinton steps into the spotlight again nearly a decade later, the real question becomes whether anything has really changed.
“The big difference between 2008 and 2016 is that there’s now research that demonstrates the harm that sexist media coverage does to women who run for office,” said Rachel Larris, communications manager for the Women’s Media Center, which co-released a project with She Should Run to guide media coverage on key language that can can harm female candidates.
“The conversation that is evolving between 2008 and 2016 is seen as not just the sexist insults but the soft sexism,” Larris continued. “There’s a wider conversation being talked about and what actually is sexist coverage of women.”
This guide, titled “Name It, Change It” tries to raise awareness for reporters and pundits about the kind of language that may not seem sexist exactly but certainly isn’t used to describe male candidates. Terms like “feisty,” which Clinton herself got tagged with by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer in 2008, “spark plug” or “spitfire” are all examples of the more subtle types of differences media uses when talking differently about male and female candidates.
“I’m even going to go out on a limb and say ‘grandmother.’ How often do you see the word grandmother or mother used to describe a woman running for office? But grandfather or father isn’t used as prolifically,” Larris added. Indeed, hundreds of stories written about Hillary Clinton have included the word “grandmother,” though the future candidate herself has also used the word in interviews.
Though many are joking that a Clinton candidacy is a blast from the past, a lot of things have changed since the last time she ran for office, including the composition of the media itself. The New York Times has two full-time reporters covering Hillary Clinton, both women. Even Fox News, which often comes under fire for its sexist coverage, has more women in the anchor chair than they did in 2008. But even though more women might be writing and presenting the news, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the coverage will be worlds better.
“We all live in this culture, and unfortunately this culture can be sexist,” Larris said, cautioning that female reporters can fall prey to sexist narratives.
Jennifer Lawless, who once ran for office herself, is now a professor at American University and director of the Women & Politics Institute, also cautions that the messenger may not matter. “I don’t know systematically that the sex of the reporter matters. I do know though that over time, as more and more and more women enter journalism, we’ve seen more attention to women in politics. We’ve seen more attention to treating them in a fair way and treating them like their male counterparts,” she said. She also pointed out that the Clinton campaign itself has changed since the last time she ran, and they’ll likely emphasize a different message and her newer experience.
Lawless said that she felt the straight news coverage of Clinton last time around was reasonably fair, but that it was the punditry class that was more of a problem. But when asked if she thought it might be better this time around, she said it would be mixed. “My hunch is that the commentary probably won’t change that much, but I could see some scenarios where there are far more caveats. So, I can imagine a lot of these people saying things like, ‘I’m not saying this because she’s a woman, but –‘ or ‘I would say this even if she was a man, and—‘ where they would preempt any suggestion that their statements are sexist.”
She also points out that Clinton is a more complex candidate than most women running for office. “The thing that’s tricky about Hillary Clinton is that she’s an incredibly unique candidate. It’s difficult to disentangle whether things said about her are necessarily examples of sexism or whether they’re Clintonisms,” she said. “Somebody goes to a rally and says ‘iron my shirt’ – that’s sexism. If somebody pushes her 87 times after a question and kind of never lets her off the hook – I don’t know, that’s a more ambiguous situation.”
Ultimately, the important thing is to point it out, argues WMC’s Larris. “When voters are made aware of the differences in coverage they respond positively that these messages shouldn’t be part of our election coverage. … People can call out media coverage, you don’t have to have a high position to do it.”