Sexism in the Midterms: Politicians Win, Women Lose

“If Harry Reid had a crazy man to run against, I think he’d be retired today.”

So says Steve Cobble, co-founder of Progressive Democrats of America, on GRITtv with Laura Flanders this week. He’s talking about the fact that sexism played an unusual role in Tuesday’s election results. Tuesday’s results were not the result of a desperate plea for change from Republicans voters but, in part, a reminder that the sexist way we treat female candidates – regardless of party – and the way female voters are treated, affected the outcome as well (even if it was, in the instance above, for Democratic success).

Sexism seemed certainly to play a role – both overt sexism in the way candidates were treated and portrayed; and more latent sexism in the apathy the Democratic party displayed in not making women’s concerns more central to campaigns. It may have effected the female voter turn-out for Democrats this time around. 

As Dalia Sussman reported on the New York Times live-blog on election night:

“Democrats have come to rely on support among women to counter Republicans’ support among men. But according to exit polls so far, women nationally are evenly dividing their vote between the Democratic candidate for U.S. House and the Republican candidate. In 2006, women voted for Democratic House candidates by 12 points over Republicans.” [emphasis mine]

The Center for American Women and Politics notes that gender gaps were still evident in most U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, where exit polls were conducted; and that women were more likely than men to support the Democratic candidate, in those races where gender gaps occurred. It means that the women’s vote was key to support for Democratic candidates – in races from Colorado (where Democrat MIchael Bennett won his race against Republican Ken Buck) to Pennsylvania (where Democrat Joe Sestak lost to Republican Pat Toomey, GOP/Tea Party candidate). It also signals that if more women had turned out for the Democrats, in those races where Democrats lost, they could have won. And in those races where Democrats did win, they likely have women to thank. 

Amanda Marcotte argues that women are not a “monolithic” voting bloc and that while it’s true that single women including single mothers, and women of color were crucial in bringing Obama to victory in 2008, these are groups whose votes are traditionally suppressed during midterm elections. The “enthusiasm” is not as present during midterm elections. As well, she says, you need to look at the difference between married and non-married women; married women tend to vote for more conservative candidates, while single women are more left-leaning. Did the single women stay home? But in a time of economic distress, when women are increasingly primary or co-bread winners in the famiy, when so much is at stake depending upon Republican or Democratic leadership, why didn’t Democrats’ messages reach all women?

The Women’s Media Center says that media misogyny definitely plays a role. Their Name it. Change it. Campaign tracked sexism on the campaign trail, this election season. The WMC notes that “One of the biggest barriers to elective democracy is the way women candidates are portrayed in the press.” Was the sexism just too off-putting?

Cobble says the misogyny inherent in portrayals of Nancy Pelosi, this country’s highest-ranking woman to ever hold elective office, as a “witch,” and the fear stoked in many Americans from Tea Party slogans like “Take back our country” played into the sexism which worked against Democrats. Ultimately, the mostly male, mostly white, mostly religious right Tea Party vote won out, putting Pelosi in her place from their perspective.

Dana Goldstein, writing about the scapegoating of Pelosi, in the Washington Post writes,

The attacks were vicious. A Republican National Committee campaign, “Fire Pelosi,” made careful, mocking use of her official title, “Madam Speaker.” When she criticized Gen. Stanley McChrystal for one of his many intemperate public comments about the administration’s Afghanistan strategy, ignoring chain of command, the Republican National Campaign Committee spokesperson said, “Taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put her in her place”—barefoot and in the kitchen, presumably, far away from important matters of war and peace.

But the sexism didn’t only work against the Democrats. It could have worked for them as well. For instance, this “Year of the GOP Woman,” – two GOP women, in particular. Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, both losers for U.S. Senate seats on Tuesday, were portrayed as loony, crazy, and over-the-top (which they were) by traditional media outlets. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, were largely deemed as extreme yet acceptable (Pat Toomey, Rand Paul). Cobble says that O’Donnell and Angle were “mocked far beyond their equally crazy male counterparts” – a sentiment with which I agree. While Toomey’s and Paul’s antics and far right positions were covered, O’Donnell and Angle were both made out to be far more bizarre. Even many Republicans kept their distance – while retaining support for men like Ken “I don’t believe a rape victim should bring charges against her confessed rapist” Buck.

When Laura Flanders asks Cobble if he’s saying that “Sexism works for the Democrats?” he quickly notes, “Well, I think sexism works against women.” It’s a startling moment when one realizes the irony and ultimately the trade-off women in the United States are still forced to make. Yes, we managed to “fend off” anti-choice, extreme candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle – both of whom would have worked with their male colleagues to block abortion access, gay rights’ measures, pass anti-immigrant measures, and more. However, it was sexism, in part, which allowed this to happen. Brain hurt yet? Mine does. In fact, my heart does too.

The truth is, says Steve, the Democratic party is a party based on women’s votes yet it is not a party for women, just yet. It’s leadership, for the most part, is made up of a majority of men. If the Democrats don’t start doing a better job at fighting sexism (in its own ranks as well as outside the party) and prioritizing women’s issues as critical to the success of all, the party won’t be successful at all, says Cobble.

The Center for American Progress, in a report  (PDF) released on Thursday, Novermber 4th, about the election results is clear,

It should be obvious to all progressives that an electorate that looks like the one from 2010 is disastrous to their long-term goals. They need to take stronger steps to reignite the historic coalitions that fueled the 2006 and 2008 elections, particularly among women, young people, African Americans, and Latinos.

And in case one needs a reminder, this will likely be the first time in over 30 years that the number of women in Congress does not increase. The Washington Post reports that of the more than 100 newly elected legislators, 97 are White men, 12 are women.

This election day does not have to be a “mandate” for Democrats to move to the middle. It could be seen as a mandate for Democrats to understand how important women, as leaders in the party and voters for the party, are to its ability to grow.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • jacqueline

    This article reads as though the midterm losses were an expression of sexism –

    and sexism, as we all know, is something men always exhibit toward women.

    The voters consisted of both sexes. The Democratic party consists of women in positions that vary from local committeepersons, to political analyst/strategists and up to state and regional party chairmanships.

    It’s absurd to claim that sexism, male sexism in particular, was the over-arching factor here. We are neither victims nor martyrs in this case and it doesn’t help us to try and hide behind the opinion of some male.



  • squirrely-girl

    sexism, as we all know, is something men always exhibit toward women.

    Ummmm… no, we all don’t “know” that.


    Woe be me to quote Wikipedia but it occasionally serves a purpose… “Sexism is is the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other. It can also refer to hatred of, or prejudice towards, either sex as a whole, or the application of stereotypes of masculinity in relation to men, or of femininity in relation to women.”


    Quite simply, sexism can be displayed by as well as directed toward any and all of the sexes. Similarly, women can be sexist toward women and men can be sexist toward men. 


    I think sexism was pretty evident in the elections where female candidates were using their motherhood status as a critical campaign point. :(


  • colleen

    and sexism, as we all know, is something men always exhibit toward women.

    Not at all. There are many men who aren’t sexist towards women. Conversely there are many women who are outrageously sexist towards other women. Indeed, some (Kathleen Parker comes to mind) make their living at it.

  • jacqueline

    I’m judging by what I have read on this website for over a year, whether in articles or comments. When the point is brought up,  the regulars here go into denial about it. But it always seems to be the males who are presumed and accused of hating women, feeling innately superior to them and consequently abusing them.

    “I think sexism was pretty evident in the elections where female candidates were using their motherhood status as a critical campaign point.” :(

    I assure you, their choice of citing motherhood had to be approved by women one way or another; whether by campaign advisors or party leaders. So, in other words, Amie’s article is addressing the sexism of women during the midterm elections? I disagree. :~