Talking About Sexism Is Not a “Victim Trap” for Female Politicians

Plenty of politicians talk about their struggles. It’s only a problem when it’s not white men.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images.

In his most recent piece for New York magazine, columnist Jonathan Chait argues that Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand should stop portraying themselves as victims of sexism if they ever want to win the presidency. Chait’s argument echoes his concern about the many disparaging “cards”—woman, race—that politicians have supposedly played, with some frequency, over the past two decades of U.S. politics. But Chait brings one new claim to the mix: that female victimhood is a particular currency on the political left that could make a candidate popular among progressives, even as it makes her appear unpresidential to everyone else.

Chait suggests Harris and Gillibrand have leaned into this victimization, even though the framing was not dreamed up by them, their staffs, or even the Democratic Party, but by an internet clickscape that creates and amplifies outrage. The exasperated headlines Chait bemoans (e.g. “Once Again, Kamala Harris Is Interrupted at a Senate Hearing”) tell us more about the perverse incentives of online media than about any strategy Harris has employed. Yes, the internet flattens complex gendered and raced slights into bite-size wafers of indignation that flare up and die down with equal speed. More people are interested in clicking on a video of someone doing something sexist to a beloved public figure than in watching a beloved public figure make a series of good points in a Senate hearing. That may very well be a failure of the public intellect, but it’s inaccurate to ascribe that failure to Harris.

Chait assigns similar blame to Gillibrand for a recent GQ profile that touched on her fight against sexual harassment in Congress. Chait writes that “much of the story” hews to the theme of sexual harassment, including Gillibrand’s own experiences as a target of such harassment. (She says male colleagues have grabbed her waist and made sexualized comments about her weight.) But less than a quarter of the GQ piece actually relates to Gillibrand and harassment, and much of it focuses on her moves to hold Sen. Al Franken accountable for his alleged sexual harassment and her legislative efforts to reform sexual harassment and assault policy. Chait argues that discussing a woman in relation to harassment—as a person men do things to—strips her of agency, making it hard to envision her as a possible president. But the actions described in the GQ profile—being the first Senate Democrat to call for Franken’s resignation, starting a nationwide conversation on military sexual assault—don’t really fit this profile; they are nothing if not evidence of Gillibrand’s agency and power to effect change. If Chait and his intellectual peers dismiss everything a woman says or does that relates to sexual harassment as indicative of victimhood, that is a logical slip of their own making.

It’s not clear why Gillibrand’s personal experience as a victim of harassment shouldn’t be regarded as relevant to her proactive political work on the subject. When a male politician loses a family member to cancer, then uses his platform to advocate for more funding for cancer research, we don’t brush it off as the pleadings of a helpless victim. When a male congressman who served in the military tries to improve veterans’ medical benefits after a bad experience at a VA hospital, we don’t scoff as he brings up his military background. Anyone can advocate for greater accountability for sexual abuses, better-funded research into cancer treatments, or a renewed commitment to American veterans, but if an advocate has personal experience in the matter, it’s both politically and practically smart to use it to inform her work.

Politicians of both parties have built entire political campaigns on the fetishization of victimhood, and the general public—backed by Chait-like columnists across the political spectrum—has applauded them. These victims aren’t women or people of color, though. They are the working class—a phrase that usually means white, U.S.-born men. When politicians invoke the working class, they explain that working-class people are victimized by predatory banks, by overprescribed opioids, by overregulated corporations, by poisoned air and water, by an influx of immigrants, by rising health care costs, by organized labor or the lack thereof. At every year’s State of the Union, alongside heroes and superachievers, working-class people attend at the invite of the president, serving as conveniently located rhetorical devices: the sympathetic victim in the audience, nodding along.

But presidents and those who’d like to be presidents don’t stop at praising these working-class victims—they claim to be them. CNN has a great roundup of the humble backgrounds claimed by the 2016 presidential candidates. Bernie Sanders: “My father worked for almost his entire life as a paint salesman and we were solidly lower middle class. As a kid I learned, in many, many ways, what lack of money means to a family. That’s a lesson I have never forgotten.” Ted Cruz, on working two jobs and taking out more than $100,000 in student loans: “Loans, I suspect a lot of y’all can relate to. Loans that I will point out I just paid off a few years ago.” John Kasich, to Whirlpool employees: “My father carried mail on his back for 29 years. Growing up the way I did, I’m really one of you. I understand what it all means. I understand the struggles.” No one accused him of playing the son-of-a-mail-carrier card.

These statements serve a dual purpose: to convince working-class voters that politicians understand their struggles, and to position the candidates as people who overcame obstacles to achieve success. What Chait fails to realize is that for female politicians, a public airing of their experiences with sexism can also prove that they have triumphed over obstacles to their success. If the son of a paint salesman has to work twice as hard as the son of a real estate tycoon to land that first big job, a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to be heard and taken seriously in the Senate.

Rather than see sexism as a legitimate barrier that takes disproportionate grit, thick skin, social diplomacy, and emotional fortitude to overcome—all qualities befitting of a good president—Chait sees that struggle as a liability. To the extent that Gillibrand and Harris actually talk about getting interrupted and sexually harassed on the job, it’s not to complain or seek pity. It’s to point out that they didn’t float to the top on the winds of some inborn privilege, but fought their way there in the face of social and economic forces that would have beat back a less-determined candidate. Female voters, who make up more than half of the electorate, are more likely to relate to this struggle than if Gillibrand or Harris had insisted that they’d never been treated differently because of their gender.

The art on Chait’s column includes photos of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth, neither of whom he mentions in the piece. It’s a shame, because Warren, in particular, offers an example for how sexism can be recast to a candidate’s benefit. Warren was the recipient of some famously infantilizing remarks from Mitch McConnell in February of 2017, when he interrupted her midsentence during a debate over Jeff Sessions’ nomination to invoke a rule preventing senators from ascribing “unbecoming” conduct to one another. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell said. Warren now sells merchandise emblazoned with that last sentence, and the DNC has used it on fundraising mailers.

The idea that a candidate is fighting back has always been a powerful motivator. The RNC fundraises with claims that Donald Trump is the victim of a lying mainstream media, and Trump sells shirts that proudly reclaim the word deplorable, an insult Hillary Clinton launched at Trump supporters. Trump has styled himself a victim at every turn, and while it’s neither a great look nor particularly honest, it sure didn’t cost him the election. Warren, at least, has emphasized one positive characteristic underlying her victimhood at the hands of a man: persistence. It’s there in the stories of Gillibrand and Harris too. Men just have to be willing to see it.