Sexist Senators

When a male politician compliments his female opponent’s looks, is it really a compliment? Is it just a well-intentioned but anachronistic remark made by a man of Don Draper’s generation? Or is it reflective of something more sinister, a subtle message to voters that his opponent is “only a woman?”

This question came up again last week when U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), running against attorney Roxanne Conlin (D-IA), told the media:

“She’s a really good looking woman. I don’t have a problem looking at her.”

Regardless of whether U.S. Sen. Grassley meant the comment as an innocent throwaway line or something intended to strip his opponent of credibility, it’s a cringe-worthy line that has no place in today’s politics.

Mr. Grassley isn’t alone. Bruce Blakeman, a candidate in New York’s Republican Senate primary trying to knock off incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand, said:

“I think Kirsten Gillibrand is an attractive woman, I think she’s bright, and I think she’s probably a good mom herself.”

It’s not just Republicans. During his 2008 run for the vice presidency, Joe Biden commented on opponent Sarah Palin’s looks, calling her “good looking.”

And women are occasionally guilty as well. In an especially telling clip, Republican Carly Fiorina, running in California against U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), was caught on an open mic in June calling her opponent’s hair “so yesterday:”

The website “Name It, Change It” points out that women are 50 percent less likely than men to seriously consider a run for office. Perhaps the knowledge that their opponents and the media will scrutinize everything about them – from their breast size (Sarah Palin) to the amount of cleavage they display (Hillary Clinton) to their “lesbian looks” (Elena Kagan) – dissuades them from entering public life.

One final point: This article may appear to some as a politically correct rant. It’s not. Since today’s media reliably covers these types of comments, candidates should know better than to create unnecessary distractions from their main messages.

If you’re a candidate running for public life against a female opponent, don’t go easy on her. Attack her beliefs, attack her votes and attack her policies. But you’d be well-advised to leave comments about her looks out of the conversation, where they belong.