Behind the Triumph

How Women Managed Historic Victories on Election Day 2012

After a brutal election cycle peppered with sexist attacks, a historic slate of women will serve in the 113th Congress. Allison Yarrow on how the winners’ response to sexism brought them victory at the polls.

11.12.12 9:45 AM ET

Remember 2008? The race when Tucker Carlson said he involuntarily crossed his legs whenever he caught sight of Hillary Clinton on television. When hecklers screamed “iron my shirt!” at her during a campaign stop. When her clothes and hairstyles were chronicled obsessively in the media.

One “war on women” later, the picture has evolved. When women’s groups and activists speak about the exceptional gains made by women in the 113th Congress—a historic 20 Senate seats and at least 76 in the House, with some races still undecided—they won’t simply hail the defeat of Tea Party candidates who would overturn Roe v. Wade and slash women’s health-care funding. The politicians whom women’s groups support didn’t just beat candidates who rejected evolution, made incendiary statements about rape, or called the collision of sperm and egg a “person” because those candidates revealed those beliefs to constituents. Instead, the drubbing of anti-women candidates and the triumph of a new cadre of women leaders came about because women acknowledged the sexist attacks and rebutted them before their messages sunk in as truth, according to a partnership that scrutinizes gender bias in elections.

That’s a change from 2008, when Clinton did not publicly address the sexism she faced until her concession speech. But speaking out early is how women candidates bounce back from the tremendous bump male opponents gain when they hurl sexist attacks, according to research from pollster Celinda Lake, the Women’s Media Center, and the nonpartisan recruitment group She Should Run.

Yes, that’s right. Sexist attacks, like other types of negative ads, though supposedly loathed by voters, are launched because they work. Confronting the sexist charge repairs voter confidence and boosts the woman candidate, says Lake, a Democratic pollster who calls the 2012 election “a poster child for sexist comments and sexist coverage.”

In a 2010 study, Lake engaged 800 subjects in a fabricated race between a male and female candidate during which both mild and overt sexism were used. She found that both types of sexism could be equally damaging. A newspaper article labeling the female candidate an “ice queen” could undercut her lead in just the same way as her being called “a prostitute” could. Seven of 10 voters polled said they would be less likely to vote for the fake female candidate after she was called “mean girl,” or worse.

So how did Reps. Todd Akin and Joe Walsh lose on Election Day after making much-publicized comments about rape and abortion and belittling their female opponents? Journalists, groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, and even the Obama campaign took notice, spoke out against the sexism, and spread the message through Nov. 6. The result: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth of Illinois emerged victorious.

In Wisconsin, an aide to former governor Tommy Thompson suggested his opponent, Tammy Baldwin, was ill-equipped for the U.S. Senate because she is gay and then tweeted a video of Baldwin dancing at a Pride parade. Thompson critics highlighted the prejudice, and Baldwin is now the first openly gay senator in the country.

The research shows that sexist attacks cross party lines. In the race to fill former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s seat, Republican Martha McSally was pegged as a woman in the kitchen in an attack ad titled “Recipe for Disaster” that paraded her positions on recipe cards. The former Air Force pilot demanded that the ad be taken down. She was ahead of her opponent, Ron Barber, by 36 votes at press time, but the race was still too close to call.

Women candidates this cycle also benefited from watchdogs who called out sexism on their behalf. When women’s health care appeared threatened, Planned Parenthood and its political arm launched a nuclear response through social media that transcended its supporter lists. The organization was rewarded with a nearly perfect investment return, according to research from the Sunlight Foundation. Nearly 99 percent of the more than $5 million it spent on races produced positive results. The seven candidates Planned Parenthood backed—including Sens. Claire McCaskill and Sherrod Brown—won, and the seven candidates it opposed lost.

Although quick and public responses to sexism fortified women candidates, some say the candidates and their allies could have done more. Massachusetts’s newly elected first woman senator, Elizabeth Warren, was dubbed “granny” by Howie Carr of the Boston Herald so often on his radio program that the paper called her “granny” on its front page, the Women’s Media Center noted. Columbia Law School professor and The Nation columnist Patricia J. Williams said that when opponent Scott Brown sought to cast Warren as an elitist professor, she failed to highlight her achievements as a legal scholar and teacher in response. (She was among the first women to teach bankruptcy and contracts law in the United States.)

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“She didn’t call on that history,” Williams said at a recent forum at Columbia on sex and gender in the election. “I heard her say more about it on Jon Stewart than in her advertisements.”

Back in 2008, the most memorable line in Clinton’s concession speech concerned the glass ceiling. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said.

Promoters of women in office today see a few more cracks, but the ceiling remains. The women of the 113th Congress now are turning to securing committee assignments, building alliances, working for constituents, and fundraising to keep their seats. All the while, they are helping the government to look more like the country it serves. “We have to comprehensively reimagine what a political candidate looks like,” said Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women. “We’re in the process of doing that right now.”

One indication of the challenges of that process? Seth Meyers’s comment on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” about the election of a record number of women senators:

“No one is happier about that than the pantsuit industry.”