Name It. Change It. Graces Cover of USA Today

On September 23rd, the Name It. Change It. campaign unveiled original research on how sexist media coverage harms women candidates. This groundbreaking research, performed by Lake Research Partners, reveals that even mild sexism has a tremendous effect on women candidates and their campaigns. It also shows, however, that a direct response to sexism is truly effective in erasing this damage. Find out more from Susan Page's USA Today cover story on Name It. Change It.

Sexist jabs scar female hopefuls

Direct response is effective comeback.

By Susan Page

USA Today

Calling a female candidate such sexist names as "ice queen" and "mean girl" significantly undercuts her political standing, a new study of voter attitudes finds, doing more harm than gender-neutral criticism based solely on her policy positions and actions.

Harder-edged attacks, such as referring to her as a prostitute, were equally damaging among voters, according to research commissioned by a non-partisan coalition of women's advocacy groups.

The survey said the advice often given to women — to ignore the attacks rather than risk giving them more attention or legitimacy — turns out to be wrong. In the study, responding directly helped the female candidate regain lost ground and cost her opponent support.

"I was stunned at the magnitude of the effect of even mild sexism," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducted the survey. "Right now campaigns tend to be silent and try to tough it out, and this really opens up a whole new strategy of responding."

The groups that sponsored the research are the Women's Media Center, the WCF Foundation and Political Parity. Thursday, they will announce a joint initiative called "Name It. Change It" designed to monitor and respond to sexism against female candidates in the media.

Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, president of WCF, says demeaning or belittling language routinely afflicts women in both parties, from Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 to Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware now.

During this year's campaign, an opponent of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, sent a tweet that called her "a member of the world's oldest profession." A talk-show host referred to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., as a "high-class prostitute." And at a Democratic fundraiser in New York Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand "the hottest member" of the Senate.

The poll, taken Sept. 1-8, asked 800 likely voters to listen to descriptions of two hypothetical congressional candidates, Jane Smith and Dan Jones. Half the voters then heard a back-and-forth about the candidates that used the words "ice queen" and "mean girl," then the word "prostitute" to characterize the woman.

The other half of the sample heard a back-and-forth without those labels.

Among the findings:

• The female candidate lost twice as much support when even the mild sexist language was added to the attack. Support for her initially measured at 43% fell to 33% after the policy-based attacks but to 21% after the sexist taunts. The drop was significant among both men and women, those under 50 and over 50, and those with college educations and without.

• The sexist language undermined favorable perceptions of the female candidate, leading voters to view her as less empathetic, trustworthy and effective.

• Responding directly helped the women candidates' regain support. The rebound occurred both after a mild response — the female candidate calling the discussion "inappropriate" and "meritless" and turning back to issues — and after a more direct counterattack that decried "sexist, divisive rhetoric" as damaging to "our political debate and our democracy."

Bennett herself faced the issue when she unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional District in 2008. A blog posting derided her with vulgar, sexually explicit language that was reported in the local newspaper. "I was advised, 'Ignore it,' and I consistently said, 'No comment,' " she recalls. "I realized after my race was over that was a mistake."

Published by Kate McCarthy on 09/27/2010

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