By Kim Lyons
At the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Women in Law Division spring luncheon this month, former CNN White House correspondent Jessica Yellin played a recording of 2016 presidential candidates’ voices. Empirically, she asked the audience, whose voice is the most “shrill”?
Ms. Yellin noted more than one story in the current election cycle has characterized Hillary Clinton’s voice as shrill — most notably, FoxNews commentator Sean Hannity, who said Ms. Clinton was an “aging, out of ideas, often shrill” grandmother, in a comparison with Marco Rubio.
That’s coded language, the speaker argued, applied to female candidates and other women in the public eye. “The problem is, it becomes part of the narrative, and gets repeated over and over,” she said.
The notion that gender-coded language and subtle sexism play a key role in political discourse is gaining traction, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics in New Brunswick, N.J. That organization recently launched the Presidential Gender Watch 2016 project, in partnership with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.
“We want to elevate the dialogue about gender and confront some of these biases head on,” Ms. Dittmar said, “to get people thinking critically about the more nuanced way gender informs the race.”
Using terms like “pushy” and “shrill” are pretty blatant examples of casting female candidates in an unflattering light, but Ms. Dittmar says there are more subtle examples of sexism in media coverage of the still-young 2016 campaign. A New York Times’ piece on Rand Paul’s wife, an experienced media relations professional, could be viewed as an attempt to “soften” the sometimes abrasive candidate, she said.
“That is loaded with all sorts of gender expectations and is just as interesting to us as the many thousands of articles about how Hillary’s gender will play a role in this race.”