How we talk about female politicians

It seems if you talk to anyone for more than 10 minutes in this country, the conversation inevitably turns toward politics.

June 16, 2013 22:01
Labor MK Michal Biran

Labor MK Michal Biran 370. (photo credit:

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.

People have 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 approaches.

This phenomenon would be a problem if it were merely occurring around the watercooler, at Shabbat dinner tables and over beers at a local bar.

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,” he writes.

“Shaffir is a redhead, and that says it all. Michaeli... has a history of embarrassing behavior: eating with her hands, sitting on the prime minister’s desk....”

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 gossipers.

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.

Female 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 House.

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.

In the study, which polled 800 people, groups of voters heard discussions about potential candidates.

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 complaint.

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.

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