The Year in Sexism

Chris Matthews, former poster boy of sexism, was educated. Martha Coakley won a Senate primary because of her gender. And women were mobilized against the new mammography recommendations. Amy Siskind tallies women’s progress this year.

Not so long ago, sexism had been deemed an acceptable norm. MSNBC host Chris Matthews felt at ease, on national television, referring to a woman as “ she devil,” “ witchy,” and “ uppity.” But 2009 marks dramatic progress from such overt sexism. This year, the country finally ended its silent acceptance.

Women stand at a crossroads of possibility. As we progress beyond the blatant sexism of Matthews, we find the roots of sexism deeply entangled throughout our culture. One example: This year’s mammogram battle, which brings with it a new awareness of what is at stake, after decades of complacency. If women can harness our progress this year—encapsulated by the three Ms: Matthews, Martha, and Mammography—2009 could presage the biggest boon to women’s advocacy since the 1970s. If we falter, some of the basic privileges and liberties that young women have taken for granted for decades could well be fleeting. The situation is that dire.

As we stand at the crossroads of possibility, women’s advocacy must adapt. We can no longer afford to remain one-party dimensional. It’s a losing proposition.

Let’s begin with progress—the education of Chris Matthews, former poster boy of sexism. After Hillary Clinton dropped her presidential bid, women were out for blood over the Hardball anchor’s sexist comments. So we organized and pressured Jeffrey Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, for a powwow. Within six months, Matthews dropped his flirtation with a Senate run, and in early 2009, he relaunched his image. The new kinder, gentler, educated Matthews emerged by defending Joan Walsh when Dick Armey told her on Hardball, “I’m so glad you can never be my wife.” Matthews even apologized on behalf of Armey.

And so 2009 became the year of the apology for overt sexism. Rep. Alan Grayson apologized for calling Federal Reserve senior adviser Linda Robertson a “K Street whore.” Letterman apologized, twice, for his “jokes” about Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter. Pepsi apologized for its sexist iPhone app. Heck, even Chris Brown apologized for beating Rihanna.

And as the country started to dial down the overt sexism, women scored a major victory in Massachusetts. Martha Coakley won a landslide victory in the state’s primary for Ted Kennedy’s open Senate seat. Yes, Coakley is poised to become Massachusetts’ first female senator. Yes, Coakley would be the 18th female U.S. senator, a record. But the most compelling takeaway is this: She won because of, not despite, her gender.

Hillary Clinton could not harness this power in 2008. Many women who voted for her did so while apologizing for the fact that she was a woman. There’s been a shift. Coakley’s campaign was successfully able to harness the support of women and women’s organizations from around the country.

Thrilling? Yes. And as we stand at the crossroads of possibility, women’s advocacy must adapt. We can no longer afford to remain one-party dimensional. It’s a losing proposition. We cannot control the political climate around us. Four of the 10 most vulnerable Senate seats in 2010 are held by Democratic women—Lincoln-AR, Landrieu-LA, Gillibrand-NY, and Boxer-CA. And so the political headwinds of 2010 could well blow our progress backward to 14 women senators.

We need to employ the lessons learned from Coakley’s groundbreaking victory as a guide to supporting women of both parties. As the mammogram issue reveals, representation is no longer a game of percentages. Representation is tantamount to women’s well-being.

The mammogram recommendations—delaying screenings until after age 50 and scaling them back to every other year thereafter—are hardly just about the procedure itself. The advice came from a government agency in a Democratic administration. (Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had rebuked a similar recommendation in 2002.) That the recommendations were even made public is emblematic of the weakened state of women’s bargaining power. Who could have imagined that the first target of health-care rationing would be women in their 40s?

Our saving grace would be our women leaders—of both parties. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have co-sponsored an amendment to the Senate’s health-care bill. Meanwhile, other women leaders, including Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), have spoken out based on their personal experiences. The male politicians were strangely absent from the early outcry—until a Gallup poll revealed that a backlash by women was turning the mammogram issue into a political weapon.

If not for our women leaders, mammograms could have become a template for further assaults on women’s issues. Battle lines are already being drawn around Pap smears, and, of course, the Stupak amendment and its cousin in the Senate.

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This week, a friend described her 26-year-old daughter as being quite surprised by all the melee. Before, this young woman had taken health-care issues for granted. It’s startling to realize how close we are to the precipice. This is precisely why women must unite and work together to continue our progress. As we finally complete the education of Matthews, new fights are brewing. We need women in leadership positions to argue for us and protect our well-being. While we celebrate our progress in 2009, we must toughen our resolve not to back off one iota. Our eyes now wide open, we embark on the next stage of our long climb.

Amy Siskind is president and co-founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. Ms. Siskind has appeared on CNN, Fox, and PBS. Ms. Siskind also writes for HuffPo and MORE.