2016 presidential election reveals new, low depths in how we talk about women

By Anna Foley

There are a lot of reasons to wake up at 5 a.m. You can get an early start to your day, maybe go on a run, and be the first one in line to grab a cup of coffee. You can see the sunrise. Or, if you’re like me, you can wake up at 5 to be catcalled.

Let me be clear, I did not wake up at that early hour one Tuesday morning specifically aiming to be catcalled. Rather, I woke up with the intention of reporting on an anti-Trump rally called #GOPHandsOffMe. A colleague and I marched down to Trump Tower bright and early, ready to find a group of protesters bearing colorful signs with even more colorful messages upon them.

Instead, we found a single man with stiff white hair. He stood at Trump Tower like a soldier waiting for orders. Instead of a rifle, the man bore a large Trump/Pence flag, which caught the light of the sun as it began to rise.

“Remember, ladies: Trump loves women,” the man said as my colleague and I walked past him.

We kept going, letting the comment roll off our backs as women often do. Yet I couldn’t help but return to what that man said to me so very early that morning. It demonstrated how much of the 2016 election rhetoric has centered around gendered language.

From “locker room talk” to “nasty woman,” the language being used in this election to describe women is atypical to say the least. Its implications are far more serious than comments about “binders full of women” a la Mitt Romney in 2012  or a vice presidential candidate’s pregnant daughter.

Following the release of leaked “Access Hollywood” tapes revealing Donald J. Trump’s so-called “locker room talk,” University of Oxford English language and literature professor Deborah Cameron argued that the GOP candidate’s behavior was lewd and inexcusable.

In her blog Language: A Feminist Guide, Cameron wrote, “Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as, a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualized social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality.”

Cameron said the leaked tapes shouldn’t be analyzed in an isolated way. Instead, they should be used as a point of contextualization of societal sexism. She argued the slew of Republicans who denounced Trump’s comments because of their daughters and wives was an example of “benevolent sexism.” In other words, though those Republicans weren’t explicitly misogynist, their comments still placed women in a different group. That form of “othering” can be dangerous, she said.

“When you objectify and demonize a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt,” according to Cameron.

That treatment is harder to identify in women in politics like Hillary Clinton. Because while comments like Trump’s are easy to define as sexist, the gender bias Clinton has faced throughout the run up to Election Day, and perhaps beyond,  is far more complicated and nuanced.

Gender bias can’t be boiled down to simply not liking Clinton. After all, her likability polling numbers aren’t entirely owed to Clinton’s female sex.

“It’s not just not liking Hillary Clinton; it’s not liking her because she’s a woman,” said Monica Schneider, a Miami University political science professor. “Gender bias becomes difficult to tease out then because we don’t always have equivalent men and women to compare.”

Gender bias toward Clinton becomes even more muddled because of the historic precedent she sets. As the first major party female presidential nominee, Clinton’s situation can’t be compared with any other candidate.

“We only have Hillary Clinton as our candidate for president that we can compare to,” said Laurel Harbridge Yong, a political scientist at Northwestern University. “With her as an individual, it’s really hard to disentangle what is a partisan bias against her versus what is a gender bias.”

“When you objectify and demonize a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt.” — Deborah Cameron, University of Oxford

Yet Clinton’s gender has become a talking point in this election, and not only by Donald Trump. Clinton herself has focused on women’s rights and issues during her campaign, making it a point to confess the bias and criticism she’s faced in her career.

That dialogue and its effects could last longer than any of the gendered comments from this election. That’s at least what Becki Planchard, a University of Chicago public policy student, hopes. She said gendered rhetoric is damaging, particularly to women in male-dominated fields like public policy. But she’s trying to change that.

“Women all over the country are taking terms like ‘nasty woman’ back,” Planchard said. “They take what was intended to be damaging and flip it on its head. We need to be intentional in how we use language, and further understand how that language affects the treatment of women.”

I saw for myself what Planchard was talking about. Only 20 minutes after that lone Trump/Pence flagbearer catcalled my colleague and me, the sidewalk across the street was flooded with hundreds of female protesters. Their signs did not disappoint. Some said, “This pussy grabs back,” while others told the GOP to take their hands off of this election.

One sign that stuck out to me was one that told Trump to, “Expect us on November 8.” Election day, it seems, will also be a day to flip language on its head.  

Image at top: Created by Anna Foley/MEDILL