For weeks after the vote, the abuse kept coming: Venomous, sexist phone calls and emails, venting rage at the five women on Seattle’s City Council who outvoted four men to derail a sports arena project.
“Disgraceful hag” was one of the milder messages. “Go home and climb in the oven,” one councillor was told.
This unfolded not in 1966, during an era when American women mobilized en masse to demand equality, but 50 years later in May of 2016—two months before the first woman was nominated to lead a major party’s presidential ticket.
It’s a complicated time for gender relations in the U.S., as the campaign pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump has underscored—most recently, with the fallout from their first debate and a sharp exchange about Trump’s attention to a former Miss Universe and her weight.
On one hand there’s been great progress toward equality. Women have climbed to the top of many a corporate ladder, IBM and General Motors being just two examples. They were recently approved to serve in all military combat jobs, and depending on the election outcome, troops could soon be saluting the first female commander in chief.
At the same time, deep and obvious gaps remain—not only in terms of economic inequality and continuing discrimination and harassment in the workplace, but in everyday actions and conversations.
Consider this year’s reboot of Ghostbusters, with women replacing the male leads of the original. Misogynistic comments circulated on social media demanding the film’s stars appear nude or be “hot.”
Or the way some sports commentators covered women’s accomplishments at the Rio Olympics. An NBC newsman drew criticism for referencing the husband-coach of a Hungarian swimmer as the “guy responsible” for her record-breaking performance.
Or the backlash in, of all places, progressive Seattle, after the five female councillors voted against the proposed sale of a street to help make way for a new arena that could host an NBA team.
One local attorney, in a signed email to all five women, described them as “disgraceful pieces of trash” and added, “I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves.” He later apologized.
Council member Lorena Gonzalez, a lawyer whose past work included representing victims of sexual abuse and harassment, said the Seattle controversy “hit a nerve” because it coincided with a presidential campaign that has exacerbated gender tensions. Women of all political persuasions needed to band together to “push back” against such treatment, she said.
Just a few decades ago, women rarely held the collective political power that they now wield in Seattle. In many male-dominated domains, women’s strides have been slow-paced and, even then, often greeted with resentment.
“Cultural change often comes with some backlash,” said Emily Martin, the National Women’s Law Center’s general counsel. “Some people feel threatened by women’s progress. Making vile attacks on the internet is an easy way to express yourself if the world is changing in ways you feel are threatening.”
That culture clash has become striking in this election year. As feminists celebrated Clinton’s glass-shattering nomination with the slogan “I’m With Her,” Trump said the only thing Clinton had going for her was “the woman’s card.” Some of his supporters wear “Trump that Bitch” T-shirts.
In the opening debate, after Trump questioned her looks and stamina, Clinton quickly pivoted to the issue of sexism.
“This is a man who called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” she said.
Polls show Clinton, a Democrat, benefiting from a gender gap that’s been a fact of American politics since 1980, with women voting for her party more reliably than men in each presidential election. This year’s gap could be the biggest ever; a New York Times poll in mid-September showed Trump, a Republican, leading among likely male voters by 11 percentage points, while Clinton led among likely female voters by 13 points
There’s also a gender gap in turnout—nearly 10 million more women voted than men in 2012.
Brooke Ackerly, a political science professor at Vanderbilt who specializes in gender issues, said the sexist sentiments on display during the campaign aren’t new to American politics, but are louder and more visible than before.
“It suggests to me there’s some latent anger that’s being given permission to express itself,” said Ackerly, adding that Trump was the catalyst for this. “What’s new is that we’re seeing it in public.”
Clinton, of course, has long been targeted by sexist taunts, and says she’s learned to take them in stride.
Still, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “I’m concerned about what it means for younger women who see this as what you might confront if you dare to tread on what is seen as male turf.”
As a profession, elective politics remains predominantly male turf. Women comprise more than half the U.S. population, yet account for just a fifth of all members of Congress and one-fourth of state lawmakers, according to an Associated Press survey earlier this year. And that’s a better showing than for women in such fields as firefighting, construction and video-game design.
For two years, software engineer Brianna Wu of Boston has been a target of the online harassment campaign known as Gamergate, which subjected several women in the video-game industry to misogynistic threats. It surfaced in the summer of 2014, and hasn’t vanished.
“It’s still a constant drumbeat,” said Wu, who became a target after ridiculing those who decried women’s advances in the male-dominated industry. Pictures of her previous house were posted online by harassers. She and her husband now use a re-mailing service to get packages, and resort to pseudonyms when they must provide their real address.
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s just a cost of your career, if you’re a woman.”
Depending on the questions posed, opinion polls show curiously mixed views on gender issues. For example, polling by Gallup shows that 92 per cent of Americans _ including overwhelming majorities of both men and women _would vote for a woman for president if they felt she was qualified.
Yet there’s a split as to whether obstacles remain that make it harder for women to get ahead. About 63 per cent of women say this is the case, compared to 41 per cent of men, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Among white men, Trump’s strongest base of support, there’s some cynicism about the whole gender debate.
“We’re so sick of the gender card being played, we don’t even listen to it,” said Mark Meckler, a Trump backer and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots who lives near Sacramento, California.
Throughout her campaign, Clinton has presented herself as a champion of women’s issues, promising to protect their rights to abortion and fight to reduce economic inequalities.
Trump has recently stepped up appeals directed at women. He advocated making birth control available without a prescription and offered proposals on child care and paid parental leave.
Critics said his child-care plan, by relying on a tax deduction rather than a credit, would skew to the advantage of wealthier families. As for parental leave, Clinton advocates coverage for fathers and mothers. Trump’s proposal covers only mothers; some advocacy groups say this would make companies less likely to hire women since they could lose them for six weeks in the event of childbirth.
Pay equity is another issue with gender overtones; surveys show that nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women.
Clinton says she supports raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour. Trump said in July that the minimum wage should be $10, but added that states should “really call the shots.”
In some places, there are efforts to address the gender wage gap locally. A ballot measure in Cincinnati calls for a new tax levy to expand access to preschool education, and one of its goals is to boost pay for preschool workers, many of them women of colour earning wages that barely support their families. In Ohio, preschool teachers earned an average of $23,690 a year in 2014.
Among the organizers working for the measure is Elizabeth Hopkins, 31, an African-American mother of children aged 1 and 3.
“It saddens me, that the jobs these women have keep them in poverty,” Hopkins said. “These are the most important positions. They’re the ones tending to our children.”
Trump/Clinton differences are particularly stark on abortion. Clinton favours lifting a ban on use of federal funds to help poor women afford abortions; Trump says he would appoint “pro-life” Supreme Court justices who might consider overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Unsurprisingly, Clinton is backed by the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood. Trump’s supporters include leaders of national anti-abortion groups.
Some prospective voters don’t fit easily into the obvious boxes. There are conservative women who would never vote for Clinton, yet find Trump’s rhetoric and behaviour repugnant. There are men planning to vote for Clinton who wish she would be as outspoken about challenges facing boys and fathers as those facing women and girls.
One of those men is author Warren Farrell of Mill Valley, California, a figure in what’s loosely known as “the men’s movement.”
“I’m supporting Hillary Clinton despite the people in her campaign who are less compassionate toward men, less understanding of the importance of fathers and almost completely ignorant of the boy crisis,” said Farrell. That’s a reference to boys’ worse grades in school and higher rates of learning disabilities, disciplinary problems and dropout rates than girls.
As for Trump, “he represents everything that women fear about men—blustery, grandiose, narcissistic,” Farrell said.
Meanwhile, Trump has many enthusiastic female supporters, including Amber Smith, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“I like that he has a backbone and he’s not politically correct,” she said.
Now a writer and commentator with a just-published memoir, Smith perceives Clinton as seeking to portray women as victims.
“We live in a country that provides equal opportunities for men and woman,” Smith said. “I’m an example of that. I wanted to be an air mission commander based on my own merits and skill level, not because of my gender.”