Gender Inequality

3 times women shut down sexism in politics

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves to her supporters before her speech during a rally at Louisville Slugger Field's Hall of Fame Pavilion in Louisville, Kentucky

Politics is still a man's world, but these women are calling it out Image: REUTERS/John Sommers II

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Gender Inequality

By the end of the year, two of the world’s most powerful political institutions – the United Nations and the US government – could be led by women.

It’s an encouraging sign of the progress being made in the traditionally male-dominated field of politics. But it’s also brought to the surface somewhat less progressive attitudes and opinions, revealing something many women already suspected: in politics, sexism and misogyny live on.

The latest example comes from France, where 17 female politicians – including IMF chief and former French finance minister Christine Lagarde – have signed an open letter calling for an end to gender discrimination and sexual harassment in politics. “The scourge of sexism is not limited only to our field. Far from it. But as politicians, we must be role models,” the former ministers, who come from across the entire political spectrum, wrote.

“We won’t stay quiet anymore,” the women warn, before going on to describe the sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour they and others have had to endure – from breast-grabbing to underwear pinging. “It’s not women who should have to change: it’s the behaviour of certain men that should.”

The letter has been making headlines around the world, but it’s not the first time female politicians have been forced to call out chauvinistic behaviour.

‘Iron my shirt’

If the gendered attacks she faces seem to roll off her back, it’s perhaps because US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been dealing with them for years. “From her first appearance on the national stage in 1992 on the arm of a future president, Clinton has faced an unending litany of gender-based criticism and calumny,” Scott Bixby of Mic points out.

But it really took off in 2008, when she was first running for the top spot in US politics. “Iron my shirt! Iron my shirt!” a man shouted at Clinton in an event on the campaign trail. Unperturbed by the misogynistic heckler, Clinton told a cheering crowd that it was because of people like him that she was running for president:

“The remnants of sexism are alive and well. As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”


‘Ditch the witch’

As Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard knew she’d face her fair share of challenges. “But I thought that after a few months, I would be judged on the job I was doing,” she told Fortune recently. The opposite happened. “The reaction about gender heightened because it became the convenient cudgel of criticism when you wanted to take a shot at the government.”

After being mocked for her appearance and having to endure calls to “ditch the witch”, she reached a breaking point when opposition leader Tony Abbott attempted to school her on sexism.

“The speech was a crack point,” Gillard said. “I thought after everything I have experienced, I have to listen to Tony Abbott lecture me about sexism.” Instead, she went on to deliver a searing speech on misogyny that was watched by millions of people around the world.


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