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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Professors, politician reflect on gendered stereotypes in elections

While campaigning for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Ohio a week before the election, President Barack Obama spoke of the double standards that have morphed voters’ perception of Clinton.

“When a guy’s ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well that’s OK,” Obama said. “But when a woman suddenly does it ... you’re all like—well why’s she doing that?”

But the battle of political sexism is not limited to the presidential election.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said individuals, albeit perhaps implicitly, place a woman’s maternal role before her professional one.

“The first thing my colleagues will say to me is ‘How are your kids?’” Sargent said. “But if a male colleague who has kids is standing right next to me that’s not the first thing they say to them.”

Double standards for politicians who are women can be identified by deconstructing stereotypes associated with gender, according to professor Janet Hyde, director for Research on Gender and Women’s Studies at UW-Madison.

In a panel regarding the 2016 election, Hyde stated that these associations are partially to blame for the disapproval women in politics face from the public.

Men are associated with “agentic qualities,” Hyde said, which she explained as “self-confident, self-reliant, dominant and ambitious” characteristics. In contrast, women are most affiliated with their emotional availability and care function.

Hyde also noted that implicit condescension toward women profoundly affects their behavior; because agentic qualities are associated with men, political leaders are expected to acquire them.

According to the Center For American Women and Politics, in every political leadership role, less than 30 percent of women hold those positions. Additionally, of the 99 members in the Wisconsin State Assembly, there are 23 women.

Sargent experienced the effect of such disparities firsthand when she was elected in 2011.

“Part of that was being more aware of how I dress or the words that I choose to use or the tone that my voice is making, ‘Don’t get too emotional, Melissa’ or the speed in which I talk,” Sargent said. “I am more aware of all of that than I was before I came [into office].”

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This shift in behavior parallels the “norm of emotional restraint for men,” which Hyde defines as a causal factor in the gender stereotypes of emotions.

“If women are agentic, then they are violating gender stereotypes and they are disliked,” Hyde said. “People, in general, don’t like stereotype violators.”

Hyde also addressed the consequences of gender stereotypes in the political world during the 2016 presidential election.

Donald Trump’s “ready expressions of anger, to many people, are power and dominance emotions,” Hyde said, arguing that the president-elect’s rhetoric and actions are within the framework of masculine stereotypes.

The 2016 presidential debates also marked a time for Sargent to relate her experiences as a woman to the rhetoric between Trump and Clinton; for example, she felt uncomfortable when Trump continuously stood behind Clinton in the second debate.

“It reminded me of times when I was walking down a street and I could hear footsteps behind me, but I was afraid to turn around,” Sargent explained.

Trump’s dominant stance, similar to his numerous interruptions, “is a way to exert power and dominance in an interaction” Hyde said.

Sargent addressed Trump’s “locker-room talk” tape as evidence of sexual domination over women by men: “It’s not locker-room talk,” she said. “It’s proven behavior that he has exhibited on other women.”

Jennifer Higgins, associate professor at UW-Madison with a focus on women’s reproductive health, also spoke at the panel.

She said in her women’s book club they discussed this incident at length, and found that “every single one of us had multiple stories of being groped” or sexually assaulted in one form or another.

“[Out of this election] has risen a new narrative about the ubiquity of the way in which people experience sexual harassment,” Higgins said. “I think that ultimately there will be, I hope, a moment of cultural zeitgeist in that area.”

At the panel, both Hyde and Higgins claimed that discussions will emerge surrounding women’s equality in response to the election in its entirety.

According to Higgins, she hopes “we all can keep working toward a sexual culture in which we don’t have to worry so much about our daughters.”

Professor Hyde also voiced her hopes for a similar world by restating a quote from Michelle Obama: “Strong men, men who are truly role models, don’t need to put women down for themselves to feel powerful.”

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