It seems if you talk to anyone for more than 10 minutes in this country, the
conversation inevitably turns toward politics. Everyone has their own opinions –
which party they voted for, how long they think the coalition will last, if
Liberman/Olmert/Katsav are really guilty and if ministers deserve those fancy
cars and bodyguards.
And, even in a system where politicians aren’t
directly elected to office, politics gets personal.
Do we trust
Netanyahu? What about his wife? Will Ehud Olmert ever make a comeback? Has Ehud
Barak retired for real this time? Is Shelly all talk and no action? Does Shaul
Mofaz cry himself to sleep at night? With a record number of new faces in the
19th Knesset, there is a whole new slate of politicians to gossip about. The new
Knesset also has a record number of women – 27 – a welcome trend (though still
only 22.5%), but one that exposes a disturbing phenomenon.
strong opinions about politics, and about political figures, and they’re rarely
afraid to express them. I’ve heard ministers and MKs referred to as bastards,
traitors, anti-Israel, disgusting, sleazy, low-lifes, morons and other things
not printable in the pages of The Jerusalem Post.
But when people talk
about female politicians, particularly women lawmakers they dislike, the
vocabulary is different. It becomes nastier, more personal, more obscene. I’ve
heard people call Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yacimovich, Zehava Gal-On, Tzipi Hotovely
and Orit Struk alike a b**ch, a bimbo, a piece of work, a ball-buster, ugly,
repulsive and whore. The attacks focus on appearance, on traditional sexist
stereotypes, on personality and not – at the end of the day – on policy or
This phenomenon would be a problem if it were merely
occurring around the watercooler, at Shabbat dinner tables and over beers at a
But the media and those in power talk in the same manner,
reaching much larger audiences.
In Haaretz at the end of last year, after
the Labor Party’s primary, Yossi Verter reviewed the party’s electoral list,
saying that Isaac Herzog’s No. 2 slot was both a blessing and a curse, and that
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer already has his eyes on the presidential race. And then he
gets to the women.
“Michaeli and Shaffir are the slate’s naughty girls,”
“Shaffir is a redhead, and that says it all. Michaeli... has a
history of embarrassing behavior: eating with her hands, sitting on the prime
That same month, Avigdor Liberman managed to insult
three party leaders in one swoop, saying that Livni, Yacimovich and Gal-On were
three Polish “veibers,” a Yiddish word which literally means wives, but is more
generally used in a derogatory manner to mean chatterboxes or
Aside from outwardly sexist comments, detailed scrutiny is
given to the hairstyles, wardrobes and figures of women in politics, above and
beyond the level of attention paid to men. Most comments on a male politician’s
appearance (aside from the considerable discussion of Environmental Protection
Minister Amir Peretz’s mustache, which is a force to be reckoned with) concern
the color of their tie, or perhaps their receding hairlines.
legislators are critiqued for wearing flats, or for wearing heels, for wearing
pantsuits or for wearing dresses, for having their hair up or for leaving it
down. Even complimentary remarks on a woman politician’s appearance have the
effect of reducing their work and their efforts to the color of nail polish they
chose to wear that day.
As Livni campaigned for the leadership of Kadima,
Channel 2’s Amnon Abramowich called her “the prettiest girl in kindergarten,”
and Ben Caspit dismissed her in Ma’ariv as suitable to lead Hadassah or Na’amat
(two women’s organizations), but nothing else.
This phenomenon is
certainly not limited to Israeli politicians. In fact, the amount of venom
hurled at former secretary of state Hillary Clinton reaches unimaginable levels.
I distinctly remember in 2008, when the former first lady was running for
president in the Democratic primary, a male friend proclaiming that she should
not become president since when it comes to her “time of the month” she won’t be
able to make rational decisions. And don’t get me started on the attention paid
to her hairdo and the infamous “scrunchie incident.”
In 2008, a Fox News
commentator said it was Clinton’s “nagging voice” that turned off voters. “When
Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary
Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage,’” Mark Rudov said. He also
noted “PMS and mood swings” as a reason to bar women from the White
Just last week, news emerged that at a fund-raiser in March, an
Australian opposition group offered a menu including an item called “[Prime
Minister] Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail,” which was described as “small
breasts, huge thighs & a big red box.”
Elizabeth Broderick, the
Australian sex discrimination commissioner, told the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation that many women in public office face a “significant demeaning
attitude, sexist questions, invasive questioning.”
“It’s got to stop
because we want women in public office, we want women to step up and be part of
[the] decision-making of this country... [but] women and young women are put off
by what they see.”
In addition, more than once last year, various Fox
News commentators derisively called Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
“Frizzilla,” a reference to the congresswoman’s curly hair.
A 2010 US
study sponsored by three US-based women’s advancement groups – the Women’s Media
Center, the WCF Foundation and Political Parity – found that genderbased
criticisms of female politicians and candidates undercut their political
standing more strongly than those based on policy positions.
study, which polled 800 people, groups of voters heard discussions about
Half the groups heard policy critiques while the
other half heard debates using sexist taunts like “ice queen,” “mean girl” and
“prostitute.” Support initially measured for the candidate at 43 percent dropped
to 33% among those who simply heard policy critiques, but to 21% among those who
heard the misogynistic remarks.
Have I hurled a rude word at a politician
I don’t like in the past? Of course. It’s not the highest form of political
commentary, but passions prevail and we say things about those we’ve never even
met before when we’re criticizing their policies. But political maneuverings,
policy positions and legislative initiatives are all legitimate areas for
There remains, however, a more deeply seated, ingrained
problem with the way we talk about female politicians, and the words we use,
that needs to be addressed.The writer is the editor of The Jerusalem
Post Christian Edition.