Historically, people yawn through mid-term elections. But not this year. 2010 is the Year of the Outrageous—not the Year of the Woman, as some would have it. Yes, there are many women running, and they are attracting a great deal of attention. But this attention isn’t necessarily positive, and it doesn’t make traditional feminists happy.

I say “traditional” to distinguish them from conservative women candidates who have appropriated the feminist label, even as they campaign against programs that benefit women. Sharron Angle, for instance, campaigning for a Senate seat in Nevada, believes it is “right” for women to stay home with their children rather than venture out into the workplace. Campaigning in the primary, Angle said she’d like to see Social Security, the lifeline of almost half of all older women living alone, “transitioned out” to the private sector. Her advice to pregnant victims of rape or incest? Turn lemons into lemonade, because their pregnancies are part of “God’s plan.”

In 2008, I was very excited, as other feminists were, when a woman appeared to have an excellent shot at the presidency. In her campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear her positions on all the important issues, drawing on years of experience close to the center of power and on her skills as an attorney. She also believed it important to demonstrate through her demeanor that she had all the prized, traditionally “masculine” attributes, such as rationality, and none of the “feminine” baggage betrayed by the expression of emotion. Conventional wisdom held that a woman who wanted to do a “man’s job” had to suppress any sign that she wasn’t actually a man.

John McCain, looking to erode Clinton’s support among women, countered her essentially neutered persona by nominating Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin displayed her femininity by capitalizing on her physical charms and keeping her children on stage with her as often as possible. It was very refreshing and affirming of womanhood for a candidate aspiring to high office to promote herself as a woman and not relegate her children to deep background or camouflage her breasts under a business suit.

But it was more complicated than that. McCain’s assumption that women vote with their vaginas was not only demeaning, it was patently untrue. The electorate in 2008 was 53 percent female, and 56 percent of those women voted for Obama. On the other hand, many men candidly admitted they were attracted by Palin’s sexuality. Her lack of preparation and experience was painfully apparent during interviews, inspiring not only many jokes but Tina Fey’s devastating impersonation. Palin revived the gendered stereotype of the sexy bimbo, even as Clinton validated the feminist ideal of the competent woman equal to any man. Yet Palin also demonstrated real political savvy, delivering prepared speeches with admirable aplomb, while Clinton’s apparently involuntary display of emotion in New Hampshire revived her flagging campaign. The 2008 election was a mixed bag for the feminist agenda.

“Name It, Change It” is a project intended to help women candidates succeed in this campaign season, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of women in elective office. The Women’s Media Center has teamed up with the Women’s Campaign Forum and Political Parity to monitor the media coverage of women’s campaigns and identify and condemn instances of sexist commentary. A recent study has shown that such sexism not only can cost women an election, but discourages them from running at all. At the campaign’s launch last month, Women’s Media Center founder Gloria Steinem made it easy to identify sexism by applying the concept of reversibility: test the suspect phrase by applying it to the other gender. “Don’t say she’s just out of graduate school but he’s a rising star,” Steinem wrote. “Don’t say she has no professional training but he worked his way up.”

Even more familiar is the falling back on descriptions of a woman candidate’s appearance—her clothing, her hair, her (un)attractiveness—not her statements on policy. One egregious example: a widely circulated video that explicitly compares the physical attractiveness of conservative women to that of their liberal counterparts, against an audio track of  the song “Pretty Woman” followed by “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

If the 2008 election was complicated in terms of gender politics, the 2010 midterms are exponentially more so. Tea Party women, exemplified by Sharron Angle  (left) and Christine O’Donnell (below), are dominating the chatter of the punditocracy. Unquestionably, the largely mocking, 24/7 saturation coverage of these women has a sexist tinge, if only because the focus has been on, at least in O’Donnell’s case, strange things she said more than a decade ago. Why is so much written about her dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager? Why isn’t she being pressed to reveal and explain her current positions instead? Why is Bill Maher picking on her? Why is he not similarly tearing into, for example, Alvin Greene, the unemployed, indicted, come-from-nowhere senatorial wannabe from South Carolina? A brief moment in the limelight and poof! Greene’s off the radar.

Complicating O’Donnell’s situation are some of the opinions she’s expressed over the years—statements that are so far afield, they almost beg to be ridiculed. She has claimed to be “privy” to classified information that China has a “strategic plan to take over America”; she has stated that masturbation is equivalent to adultery and should therefore be forbidden; and she has maintained that cloning researchers have produced “mice with fully functioning human brains.” O’Donnell has complained of “character assassination” by the media.  I think she’s right; furthermore, she’s clearly vulnerable and naïve. (The canny Sarah Palin came up with good advice: “explain what the real witchcraft and voodoo politics and economics is and that’s what’s going on in D.C.”)

But let’s not overlook the fact that O’Donnell is running for high political office. It’s not just a case of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”—the question is whether O’Donnell and some of the others running this year belong anywhere near the “kitchen” to begin with. But even if that’s so, shouldn’t they be judged on their thoughts about—and possible solutions for—the problems facing their constituents today, rather than statements made years ago?

Poorly qualified candidates tarnish the images of other women who have studied and worked hard to prepare themselves for public service. We should consider the possibility that politicians who favor repealing or gutting programs that protect women may be furthering their agenda by promoting women candidates who undermine the position, stature, and respect that women have earned for themselves over the past decades.

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