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Why Rand Paul’s sexist comments to female reporters matter

How would Rand Paul be treated if he were a woman?


Matthew Rozsa

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 14, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 2:04 am CDT

There is a strong possibility that the 2016 presidential election will be the first one to offer Americans a woman as a major party candidate. As such, one would hope that its high-profile candidates would prepared for that reality.

Rand Paul has yet to get on board, and the Internet is taking notice.

In a recent interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, Paul was confronted about his pattern of testy interview performances with female reporters. The most recent examples include his one-on-one with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, during which he chided her for “editorializing” and “talking over me.” 

He also dodged questions from CNN’s Dana Bash about whether he would factor Hillary Clinton’s gender into how he treated her during a presidential debate. Although Paul was correct in pointing out that it would be “a sexist sort of response, to say, ‘Oh, my goodness, she deserves to be treated as aggressively because she’s only a woman,’” he has ignored the underlying issue of sexism in our media’s treatment of female political candidates.

According to a study published in Political Research Quarterly, articles about female candidates in elections tended to focus more on character traits than comparable pieces about their male counterparts. Similarly, an article published in the Washington Post’s weekly Poli-Sci Perspective column explored how female candidates’ appearances and clothing choices are reported in far more detail than those of men. Whether positive or negatively, covering a female candidate’s appearance tends to negatively impact her chances at being elected. 

Whether positive or negatively, covering a female candidate’s appearance tends to negatively impact her chances at being elected. 

Women will also be asked about their family lives more often than men, as evidenced by the fact that Clinton has often received questions about being a grandmother even though Mitt Romney wasn’t queried about the political implications of becoming a grandfather when he had two grandchildren born during his 2012 presidential campaign.

Not surprisingly, a poll taken by the Daily Beast shortly after the 2008 presidential election found that American women overwhelmingly believed the two prominent female candidates that year, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, received drastically harsher coverage. 

“Though early studies found that male candidates received more total and better coverage than female candidates, recent studies suggest that the amount of coverage has stabilized,” explained, an organization devoted to increasing the number of women in elected office. “Gender bias in coverage, however, continues to plague women’s candidacies.” 

Clinton herself perhaps summed it up best in an interview last year with Diane Sawyer. “When you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly,” Clinton said. “It is just never ending. You get a little worried about, OK, people over on this side are loving what I’m wearing, looking like, saying. People over on this side aren’t. … I’m done with that. I’m just done.”

Women will be asked about their family lives more often than men.

The good news is that there are ways to address the problem of media sexism. The Women’s Media Center has created a booklet outlining gendered terminology that should be avoided when covering female candidates, including words like “feisty,” “complain,” “aggressive,” and “scold.” These suggestions are featured alongside calls for equity in how the appearance, fashion choices, and family lives of different candidates are handled in journalistic accounts.

Of course, the controversy surrounding Rand Paul is somewhat of an inversion of this problem—a male politician accused of being testy when confronted with confrontational female journalists as opposed to journalists refusing to treat a female politician as the equal of her male peers. 

That said, Paul’s behavior toward Guthrie displayed much of the condescension that has rankled professional women for years. One might argue that he would have evaded any journalist who confronted him about alleged inconsistencies in his views (no gender bias there), but check out his mansplaining to Guthrie about how she should conduct her interview: “Before we go through a litany of things you say I’ve changed on, why don’t you ask me a question, ‘Have I changed my opinion?’ That would sort of a better way to approach an interview.” It certainly raises red flags.

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The point here is not, as Paul implied on Meet the Press, that female candidates should be handled with kid gloves or that male politicians who confront them should walk on eggshells while doing so. Obviously, it would be ideal for a female politician like Clinton to only be attacked based on her record and policy views, but just as it would be ideal for Rand Paul to be criticized appropriately based on his own gender. To wit, Paul can walk out on an interview with the Guardian and still be a viable presidential contender. What would happen if a woman did the same? How would she be treated?

What would happen if a woman did the same? How would she be treated?

The Atlantic‘s Tina Dupuy hypothesized about this in a 2013 essay about Paul’s dicey history when it comes to playing fast and loose with facts. Dupuy argues she would be laughed out of Washington. “People tune in to her media appearances just waiting for her to say something stupid,” Dupuy writes. “It’s like NASCAR—part fandom, part hoping for a crash. It’s self-perpetuating: Because she’s shameless and gaffe-prone, she becomes fascinating at a Real Housewives level. … There’s a collective condescending chuckle at the thought of a girl like her in the Oval Office. Right?”

When it comes to sexism in the political race, the poor treatment of Hillary Clinton in the media helped raise awareness about overt misogyny (see: everyone who has called Clinton a “bitch”). However, indirect sexism still goes unchallenged, such as when men continue to get a head start in the race by virtue of their gender or condescend to their female counterparts in politics or the press.

There is an anecdote from American political history that offers an inverse example of the Paul case, while perfectly illustrating the lesson that needs to be learned here. Back when Anne Royall was making waves as one of America’s first professional female journalists, she found herself repeatedly thwarted in her attempts to obtain an interview with President John Quincy Adams, who refused to answer her questions about his support for the controversial Second Bank of the United States (an early-19th century equivalent to the Federal Reserve). 

Finally, Royall caught a lucky break: After learning that the president enjoyed bathing nude in the Potomac River every morning, she snuck down to the river bed, snatched his clothes, and refused to return them until he answered her questions.

One can safely assume that President Adams didn’t enjoy having his sexual insecurities used against him to advance someone else’s career. Of course, he was fortunate in that he only had to endure such treatment on one embarrassing occasion. Half the human population, on the other hand, is expected to deal with this every day.

It’s time for that to stop.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 14, 2015, 4:45 pm CDT