IT WAS probably to be expected that the first presidential race in which a woman emerged as a serious contender would raise issues of sexism and misogyny in politics. Such a debate has raged for months around Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and Democratic front-runner - intensifying recently when Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC program "Hardball," came under fire for an allegedly sexist remark about Clinton.
Matthews's offense was to state that Clinton ultimately owed her political career to the sympathy she got in the late 1990s as the wronged wife of an adulterous husband: "Let's not forget, and I'll be brutal, the reason she's a US senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner, is that her husband messed around."
The reaction was "brutal," indeed. The heads of several feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, sent a joint letter of protest to Steve Capus, president of NBC News. Members of the National Women's Political Caucus picketed the Washington offices of NBC (which owns MSNBC). Matthews initially defended his remarks; a week later, reportedly under pressure from his bosses, he apologized.
Matthews's words were undoubtedly harsh. Yet there is little doubt that Clinton's election to the Senate in 2000 was propelled at least partly by sympathy, as well as admiration for the grace under fire she had shown during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In June 2007,
To Clinton's supporters, Matthews's remark is only one example of rampant sexism directed at the former first lady - by Matthews himself (he has referred to Clinton as "witchy" and "cold"), by other pundits, and by voters. In November, a woman at a campaign meeting in South Carolina asked Senator John McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?"
In the eyes of many feminists, the lack of outrage at this incident - caught on camera and widely viewed on YouTube - reveals a deplorable acceptance of misogyny. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, has been quoted as saying that the reaction to the "n-word" being used about a black candidate would have been quite different.
But such analogies are flawed because race and gender are not the same. Should the "b-word" be likened to racial slurs, or to gender-specific insults that could be directed at a male candidate, such as "bastard" or worse?
Hillary Clinton has always been a polarizing figure: "Saint Hillary" to some, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing to others; an altruistic crusader for social justice or a power-hungry Mussolini in skirts. There is no question that gender was a large factor both in Hillary-hatred and in Hillary-worship.
But Clinton is hardly the only polarizing figure in contemporary American politics, or the only target of visceral, irrational hate out of all proportion to the politician's actual faults. Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, and George W. Bush have all been in that boat.
To some extent, the language of hate is inevitably colored by gender, since our perceptions of individuals are, too. But this is more of a two-way street than most feminists are willing to admit. Since we habitually equate sexism with anti-female attitudes, gender-specific negativity directed at men tends to fly under the anti-sexist radar.
Take the accusations of Vietnam-era draft-dodging, which have dogged both Bush and Bill Clinton. Not only is this an issue for male politicians only, it is also closely related to notions of military valor as a masculine virtue.
Moreover, for a female candidate, gender can be an advantage as well as an obstacle. A male candidate seen as too aggressive toward a female opponent can be easily made to look like a bully. Clinton herself played this card in her 2000 Senate race against Representative Rick Lazio after he walked up to her during a debate and urged her to sign a pledge to stop raising and spending soft money - a move that would not have raised any eyebrows if another man had been on the receiving end.
There is no question that sexism exists; outright woman-hating thrives as well in some dark corners of the Internet (and man-hating in others). But women are not helped by exaggerated claims of rampant misogyny permeating the cultural mainstream. Perhaps a more productive pursuit would be to examine and challenge the culture of hate that cuts across gender lines, and truly permeates our political culture.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.