Back in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was running for president – were we ever so young? – a video went viral of the politician answering the same set of sexist questions, over and over again, over the course of her 40 year career.
Interviewers asked Clinton about her “strong” opinions, that many people might see as “threatening”. They asked her about whether men would want to vote for someone who reminded them of their “nagging wives”. They asked her about her voice, about her clothes and about being likeable, and it felt like they were going to ask her these questions in perpetuity, forever, even when the earth’s core has exploded and the apocalypse has brought an end to humankind.
I was reminded of that video today when I saw two separate news stories about US politicians Elizabeth Warren and Ilhan Omar. The stories are very different: Omar was appearing at an event about anti-Muslim rhetoric and was asked a question by an audience member, while Warren was backstopped at the airport by that bastion of the fourth estate TMZ. But both stories are a cautionary tale about the way we talk about and interact with female politicians.
Firstly, Omar. The congresswoman and member of the anti-Trump Squad (other members are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) was asked by an audience member at a talk about what she plans to do about female genital mutilation (FGM).
Omar’s response was blistering: “Your second questions is an appalling question,” Omar said. “I always feel there are bills that we vote on, bills we sponsor, many statements that we put out and we’re in a panel and the question is ‘can you and Rashida do this’. It’s like, how often? Should I make a schedule? Does this need to be on repeat every five minutes? Should I be like, so today I forgot to condemn al-Qaida, so here’s the al-Qaida one. Today I forgot to condemn FGM, so here we go. Today I forgot to condemn Hamas…”
She continued: “You know, I mean, it is a very frustrating question that comes up. You can look at my record, I voted four bills doing exactly what you asked me to do. I have put out statements upon statements, there is a bill in Congress that I am equal author of…”
“So I am, I think, quite disgusted to be honest that as Muslim legislators we are constantly being asked to waste our time speaking to issues that other people are not asked to speak to because the assumption exists that we somehow support and are for [FGM],” Omar added. “So I want to make sure that the next time someone is in an audience and is looking at me and Rashida… that they ask us the proper q uestion that they will probably ask any member of Congress.”
And now for Warren. The presidential hopeful was cornered at the airport by TMZ, who asked her whether she had “picked out” her outfit for the second Democratic Presidential Debate next week. Warren jokingly responded that she hadn’t picked out her outfit, and then said that maybe she would wear black trousers and a top with a jacket on top, which appeared to mollify TMZ somewhat.
But the problem here, as articulated by Oman, is why Warren is being asked that question at all? Is TMZ tracking down Joe Biden at whatever campaign stop he’s currently at to ask him what suit he’ll be wearing to the debate? Why are female politicians constantly asked what they’ll be wearing to political events, as if their fashion choices are more important than their policy points.
Unlike Warren’s question, the one directed to Omar wasn’t only sexist. It was also a little bigoted, and betrayed the assumption – as Omar so articulately pointed out – that one Muslim woman should be forced to answer for the entirety of her religion. That would be like constantly asking someone who was Catholic to denounce the horrific sexual abuse cases that have been perpetrated by certain priests.
Women can’t win. They’re either being asked about their fashion choices or being asked to answer for an entire religion even when their political record on the subject speaks for itself. Where is the middle ground? Where is the space in which female politicians are asked about their policies and proposals and plans?
Actually, I know who exists in that space. Men.