Three candidates that will be facing off in the Republican primary for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, all of whom want to unseat Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle in the next election. Only one is female. And only one has been the subject of a t-shirt with a stripper emblazoned on it, or the victim of a twitter parody account referring to college sex parties.
Guess which one?
Republican City Council Member Jean Stothert has strong fundraising and public support, making her the current frontrunner for the Republican primary. That also naturally makes her the target of all of the typical accusations and mailings that come with the territory of being the one to beat in an election race. Stothert is, for example, the subject of numerous mailings from a shadow group believed to be backing her closest opponent, Dave Nabity, although his campaign has denied any link.
But other attacks on Stothert aren’t typical—at least, not if she were male. There’s the twitter parody account that among other issues is tweeting about sexting or the Kamasutra, and a city council parody account that has tweeted about “Stothert’s vagina, blood and ‘a weekend on phrat row,’” according to the Omaha World Herald (that tweet has since been deleted).
Sexist attacks on female politicians online are sadly commonplace because of the ease and ubiquity of social media. It takes a lot more effort to design a t-shirt depicting the female candidate as a stripper and then have it printed and distributed to opponents. Yet this has also happened. One local blog came across a picture of a Democratic City Council Member showing off a festive green t-shirt on St. Patrick’s Day sporting a drawing of Stothert in a bikini on a strippers pole that read: “Jean, quit stripping us of our tax dollars.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, the shirt was “sponsored” by “Suck My Private Sector.”
For a conservative red state, female candidates have succeeded statewide in the past. Nebraska broke ground with the first female Republican Governor when Kay Orr won in 1986, in a race that pitted her against a female Democratic candidate as well. In 2012 State Senator Deb Fischer defeated former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey to replace retiring Senator Ben Nelson in a hotly contested race that nonetheless remained largely devoid of sexism. When it comes to more localized elections, however, women have struggled to gain momentum. Women have never held more than 13 of the 49 seats in the Nebraska unicameral, and Omaha itself has never had a female mayor.
Looking at the uptick in sexist attacks on female politicians in the state recently, its a small wonder that more women aren’t winning, or even running. State Senator Danielle Conrad (a Democrat) was recently called “a flat-out disrespectful c$&#” on Facebook, by political operative Jeremy Jensen, who had been hired by Republican State Senator Charlie Janssen as part of his new gubernatorial campaign. The consultant said that it was a “private” message intended only for the 400 to 500 friends on his account. Senator Janssen originally said he would ask Jensen, the employee, to apologize to Conrad, but the following day announced that he had fired Jensen from the campaign.
As political campaigns get more heated, some contend such attacks are becoming the norm, rather than an exception? Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told the Omaha World Herald that “she has never seen anything quite like the attacks leveled at Stothert,” a distressing sign now that more women are running for office than ever before. “This is just really beyond the pale and quite disgusting,” she said.
In 2012 we saw more women than ever elected to office. Now, a few months later, we are seeing an uptick in sexist attacks on women office holders. The two can’t be a coincidence.