Communication Currents

From Suffragist to Sexpot

October 1, 2009
Political Communication

Communication has long been a tool used by disadvantaged groups to secure equal rights. In 1915, 25,000 people marched in New York City in favor of granting women the right to vote. The words of speakers such as Susan B. AnthonyElizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul have been studied as blueprints for arguments that advance gender equality.

Ninety-two years later, the woman who represented the state of New York in the U.S. Senate was the frontrunner for the Democratic party's presidential nomination. When Hillary Clinton began her bid for the U.S. presidency, the nation seemed primed to realize the dream of suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, who predicted that the “day will come when man will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation.”

Unfortunately, despite the gains women have made in the last century, analysis of communication in political media and popular culture during the 2008 presidential campaign shows a troubling trend. As in the 19th and 20th centuries, the political culture of the 21st century is rife with sexist imagery. Although the misogynistic themes span generations in U.S. political culture, the most recent depictions of women in national politics have reached a new extreme. Many borrowed from the realm of pornography to frame both Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican vice-presidential nominee Governor Sarah Palin. By assessing the communication used to describe and lampoon these two candidates, we can better understand the prejudices with which women continue to contend in politics.

Pornification is a phenomenon in which pornographic themes and images seep into our daily lives and mainstream news and entertainment sources. From shoes to hamburgers to jeans, sex sells and consumer communication has been pornified for decades.

In 2007-2008, media depictions of Clinton and Palin became surprisingly explicit. Clinton has dealt with coarse critique since 1995, when the mother of then-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, famously called Clinton a “bitch” in a televised interview with Connie Chung. By 2007, although the “bitch” label re-emerged, the degradation intensified with references to Senator Clinton as a “cunt” and graphic references to her sexuality. T-shirts from popular online vendors spouted slogans such as the following:

Such characterizations were not limited to fringe internet sources. A now-defunct registered, tax-exempt 527 political organization dubbed itself “Citizens United Not Timid: To Educate The American Public About What Hillary Clinton Really Is”. To ensure that audiences picked up on the intended acronym, the organization designed a red, white, and blue logo shaped like a woman's crotch. During a discussion about media censorship on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maherthe host joked, “Now they fined CBS a million dollars — a million dollars — for Janet Jackson's nipple. Think what they could get for Hillary Clinton's cunt!” Speaking with former MSNBC host Tucker Carlson on his now defunct program Tucker, Cliff May (president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) offered the bizarre proposition that if women were going to vote for Clinton based on her gender, then they should “at least call her a Vaginal-American.” After a pause, Carlson responded “Is that a new phrase? Boy, that's nasty.”

Depicting women leaders as unnatural, unattractive, and dangerous is a communication strategy that opponents to women's political equality have been using since the pre-suffrage era. Consider these examples:

  • The image of a henpecked husband juggling babies and managing the kitchen while his wife went out to vote was a popular subject of 19th century cartoons. Examples can be found here and in the cartoon titled “Home!
  • cartoon titled “Suffragists on the War Path” depicts angry old women stomping on a man, crying, “Jump on him. He's only a mere man.”

When demonizing women's political power as unnatural proved ineffective, opponents to woman suffrage attempted to diminish the woman citizen by playing up her sex appeal. For example:

  • postcard titled “Votes for Women” (with the “wo” crossed out) depicted an infantilized version of the woman citizen as a toddler in a woman's hat, proclaiming “I have a dandy hubby who works and votes for me.”
  • poster from 1925 decried the loose morals of the pro-suffrage “flapper” with a simple poem: You're doing everything you can/To be a “take off' on a man/You succeed in the “take off”/Most everything's gone/Except your complexion/That's all “put on.”

Similarly, once the 2008 general election commenced, both supporters and critics of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin emphasized her sex appeal above her political resume, illustrating the resilience of cultural norms that emphasize women as sex objects. Take for example, the following:

  • spoof Alaskan license plate reading “Alaska O-MAMA! Where the air is cold and the governor is hot!”
  • t-shirt with an oil well and a sign that says “VP Palin.” An outlined figure of a stripper is wrapped around the well as if doing a pole dance and the label reads, “I'd Drill That,” in reference to the popular line from Palin's stump speech, “drill, baby, drill.”

Palin was repeatedly cast in the image of the “sexy librarian,” a staple of pornographic films. The blog stylelist reported that Palin's “sexy librarian glasses spark[ed] interest in eyewear,” and noted that Palin “also has become the flavor of the month in the political thong industry.” It did not take long before the Republican vice-presidential nominee was cast as the national MILF (a pop culture acronym standing for “Mom I'd Like to F***”) on unofficial campaign paraphernalia that read “McCain/MILF '08,” and in references on Saturday Night Live.

The presence and acceptance of political pornification during the 2008 campaign is significant because it is indicative of the continued backlash against women's political gains. As women approach the last glass ceiling of U.S. electoral politics, they face increasingly base, vile, and even violent discourses that reflect the worst kind of misogyny. Analysis of communication in political media and popular culture reveals that, although it has been nearly a century since women won the right to vote in the United States, the campaign for women's political equality is far from over.

As we recognize the anniversary of important communication events such as the 1915 woman suffrage parade in New York City, we can be assured that women and men will continue to use their freedom of speech to promote justice and equality. The alert citizen should also attend to the diversity of political messages that surround us in all forms of political media, so that we continue to move forward toward Susan B. Anthony's dream of personal and political parity for all.

About the author (s)

Karrin Vasby Anderson

Colorado State University

Karrin Vasby Anderson (@KVAnderson) is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University and co-author of Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture and Governing Codes: Gender, Metaphor, and Political Identity.

Karrin Vasby Anderson