Sexism in Omaha Politics

Omaha Councilmember Jean Strothert is the only woman running to be mayor of Omaha. She’s also the only woman on a seven-person city council and only the third woman to ever run for mayor of Omaha. The last woman ran in 1997 and none have ever won. So someone thought this t-shirt (below) about Councilmember Strothert was a good idea. And her fellow Councilmember Chris Jerram (that’s him “modeling” the t-shirt) decided it was worth a few chucks and wore in a local bar where someone snapped a few photos.

Then someone sent the photo to a Nebraskan politics blog Leavenworth Street which broke the story.

This is their analysis of this episode:

1) SOMEONE thought this was a good idea.
2) Nay…a GREAT idea.
3) So they found someone with enough design experience to make a pretty decent likeness of Jean Stothert’s hair and face (say what you will about the obvious tastelessness of the entire thing, the face image is done well)
4) They then put some cash into sending the image to a printing shop and getting them back.
5) And they did ALL of this in advance of St. Patrick’s Day so as to have it on Green shirts.

So it’s not like someone did this on a cocktail napkin and passed it over to Jerram. There were some calories burnt to put these together all for the Sunday holiday.

(Jerram later apologized.) So Leavenworth Street didn’t call it sexist (just tasteless), but plenty of others in the Omaha media found it so.

Reporter Robynn Tysver writing for the Omaha World-Herald, “Sexist attacks against Stothert among most ‘disgusting’ one national expert has seen” quotes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The article also details another attack from an anonymous Twitter account that tweeted “a reference to Stothert’s vagina, blood and ‘a weekend on phrat row.’”

It’s particularly gratifying that the local media came out very strongly against the sexism. An editorial from the Omaha World-Herald was particularly empathic.

Robust debate, the clash of political philosophies and the competition of ideas all make for spirited discussions as candidates seek to persuade voters.

As long as those debates are focused on the candidates’ qualifications, their records and their positions on issues — that’s healthy. There is never a reason to stoop to sexism, name-calling and worse. These attacks reflect badly on a city that is a far better place.

The Omaha World-Herald editorial board might think campaign sexism only hurts their city’s image, but it also hurts women who run for office. Our own research has shown that sexist criticism has an outsized effect, it’s actually more damaging to a woman candidate than a non-sexist (but equally harsh) criticism.

Most in the media aren’t aware of this, which is why we call out sexism in the media when we see it. And it’s great when other members of the media join us. The only way to negate the effect of sexism on women running for office is to call attention to it.

Columnist Erin Grace, also writing for the Omaha World-Herald wrote about another recent incident of sexism in politics, this time directed at Danielle Conrad, a Nebraska state senator.

Jeremy Jensen, who is a political consultant for State Sen. Charlie Janssen, posted a comment on Facebook:

“It’s one thing for elected officials to disagree with each other. It’s quite another to be a flat-out disrespectful c—t.”

Grace spoke with both Jensen who didn’t apologize saying it was a “private” post (which was posted before he joined Janssen’s campaign). But a day after Grace’s column, the consultant resigned from Janssen’s gubernatorial campaign.

All of this gets us back to how those in the media perceive sexism directed at women politicians. It should be unacceptable. Harsh criticism is fine but not sexist criticism. (Which obviously includes calling a woman a stripper or bitch or the c-word. There are terms that have no equivalency for men.) It’s why the Omaha World-Herald was right to call out such incidents. We do hope others in Omaha media, including Leavenworth Street – will look at our research and understand why it’s not fair ground to use sexism to attack women politicians, regardless of their politics.

As Grace wrote in her column looking at these types of incidents (and others like it) you start to understand why there are so few women who get elected in Nebraska.

You need only two hands to count the number of women in the Nebraska Legislature: 10 of 49. You need only one hand to count the five women who have served on the Omaha City Council since 1980.

The kicker in the story is that it was a female firefighter who took the photos of the offensive t-shirt although no word on who sent them to the Leavenworth Street blog.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 04/01/2013

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