Clinton Supporters Point to Sexism

As Sen. Clinton struggles in the Democratic presidential race, she and some of her supporters have pointed to sexism as a decisive factor in the primary contest. A roundtable of women discuss how Sen. Clinton's gender has affected her campaign and how her candidacy has shaped the national conversation about the role of women.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. As we said earlier in the program, Senator Barack Obama has won a majority of pledged delegates, putting him within reach, he said last night, of securing the Democratic nomination for president. But some of Senator Hillary Clinton's increasingly vocal supporters - many if not most of them women - are saying, not so fast. In a full-page ad in the New York Times yesterday and in appearances on news shows, they are arguing that sexism from the media, some voters, even Senator Obama himself, has plagued Senator Clinton throughout the campaign and is fueling calls for her to drop out now.

They say this is bad for women, bad for the country, and it needs to stop. So naturally we had to talk about this. We're joined by: the Reverend Marcia Dyson. She's a Clinton supporter, and she's actually wearing her Hillary Clinton button now, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press, she recently called for Senator Clinton to drop out of the race, and author and feminist activist, Rebecca Walker, who is I believe an Obama supporter. Is that right, Rebecca?

Ms. REBECCA WALKER (Writer; Feminist Activist): It is.

MARTIN: OK. Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you.

Reverend MARCIA DYSON (Political Commentator; Clinton Supporter): Thank you.

Ms. CELINDA LAKE (Democratic Pollster): Thank you.

Ms. ROCHELLE RILEY (Reporter, Detroit Free Press): Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to quickly ask, Celinda Lake, is there any way to test the question empirically about whether sexism is affecting this race? Do we know, for example, whether there's any significant number of people who've said throughout, I'm not going to vote for a woman?

Ms. LAKE: Well, it's very hard to get people to admit that they're not going to vote for a woman. What they tend to say is she can't win, she's not tough enough, she doesn't have the right experience, she doesn't have the right clothes on today - which they never say about the men. We did ask in the Lifetime Poll, do you think that Senator Clinton's gender has helped or hurt her campaign? And significantly more numbers of women thought that it had helped her campaign than hurt her campaign. But I think that most women, particularly most women who are baby boomers and older, I think there's been a little of both, a little base for the senator among women but some treatment that the men would not get.

MARTIN: And one of the people who's been most outspoken on that latter point is Clinton supporter and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. She was on "The Today Show" on Tuesday, arguing that sexism has been a factor throughout the race. Here's a clip of Ferraro from that show.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Today Show")

Ms. GERALDINE FERRARO (Democratic Politician; Clinton Supporter): What happened in this race is every time you raise the issue and say that's sexist in the way they're dealing, you're accused of playing the gender card. We know she's female, yeah. Latent sexism has been around in this country for a long time.

MARTIN: OK. So, let's - quick show of hands at this point. I think, Celinda, we've heard from you. Rochelle, do you think she's been subjected to sexism, and in a way, that's affected the campaign? Rochelle, what do you think?

Ms. RILEY: Well, this is America so there will always be some gender and race bias in everything that we do. But I don't think that Senator Clinton can have it both ways, to cry on cue to get votes but then to be concerned when someone says something about her pant suit. I think that the bigger issue is whether she really is the women's candidate. She's not polling the kind of women numbers the way Barack Obama is polling African-American votes. And quite frankly, every time I write a column that's critical of something that she's done, I get calls and emails - and I mean a lot of them - from women, mostly white women, saying, who said that she represents me?

MARTIN: Marcia Dyson?

Reverend DYSON: Well, you know, I've been on the campaign trail with Senator Clinton since last May, and I tend to differ. I'm also, you know, at the bolt of black media, especially, so I think the sexism it really isn't about what she wears or what she says. I think it's about a shutout out of the media. And I do believe that it has really affected her campaign. When you can't even talk during Women's History Month about women's issues, to me that's sexist, that's patriarchy, and that's misogyny.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example.

Reverend DYSON: Well, for one example, during a March month when we were talking about, you know, taking Sojourner Truth's question "Ain't I a Woman" to (unintelligible) during the 21st century, "Ain't I a Woman", we were never able to get that platform, not even on CNN. And I remember it was Sojourner Truth who said when she had a conversation with her black contemporaries, Frederick Douglass and Frances Harper, that she was going to stick with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, knowing that there was a disparity of the races of the women. But she said, hey, just because - if the black men get their rights it doesn't mean that women are going to get their rights. And here we are over 150 years later, and she's absolutely right.

MARTIN: OK. Rebecca, what about you?

Ms. WALKER: You know, I think that sexism in our culture, as racism, is completely pervasive, something that we need to address. Has she been exposed to it? Of course. I would be surprised if she wasn't. I think what's most problematic is the way in which it's being used at this point. The way Ferraro's been used to, you know, trot out these ideas and see how they're going to play the day before a major primary. You know, there's always been misogyny. At what point to we raise our voices and say this is a problem?

Do we do it opportunistically, in a way that's going to undermine another candidate, in this case an African-American male candidate? Or do we do it consistently, you know, in ways that can galvanize women, men, black, white at other opportune moments that are not undermining to other people who are trying to make an ascent, you know?

MARTIN: What I hear you talking about, Rebecca, is this question of competitive suffering. Is the issue here that - I mean, I think that there are two issues that we want to talk about. One is, is the issue that she's a woman, or is it the woman she is? Because it's not like Senator Clinton just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. I mean, she's got a whole history as a political player that people are engaged in. And then the second question, I think, is competitive suffering, is the whole question of comparing the experiences of white women and black men, or black people in general. So, Rebecca, do you want to start?

Ms. WALKER: I really do think it's the woman that she is. And I think it has to do with that she has really fallen into a kind of, what I would call, a second wave feminist, you know, leadership morass. You know, she believes that gender alone should be enough. She has disdain for the young. She doesn't have a real, you know, intuitive understanding of the need for a transcendent message that is bigger than gender. I think she is so locked into a gender view that it's not even a remote possibility to these women that a man might be able to be more beneficial for more women than actually a woman.

MARTIN: Marcia is about to explode here, so I have to let her weigh in.

Reverend DYSON: You know what, the test is in - I take high offence to what you just said, Rebecca. One thing that I did learn from campaigning for Senator Clinton and with Senator Clinton, she has been for the missed Americans, those who came on slave ships, those who came on the Mayflower. I've seen her work for those who try to run across the southern border, those who were once interned on slave ships, and those who were pushed, the Jewish communities off the shores during World War I and II. So I take a great offence to saying that she's just running on women's issues. She's running a world campaign.

MARTIN: OK, let's get some other voices in here. Celinda and then, Rochelle, I think you wanted to get in here. Celinda?

Ms. LAKE: One thing I would say to address your questions specifically, I think that independent of the woman that she is, there's no question that the way that she's been covered and some of the questions that she has had to answer are through the gender prism, and that people are seeing her campaign through the gender prism. This is the most - whether you support her or not, this is the most qualified woman that we will have run for president probably in our entire lifetime.

And the fact that she's been asked, is she tough enough? Is she knowledgeable enough? That is very much the double vine that all women candidates, the women who are running for governor, the women who are running for senator, have to cover. Nobody covers the attire of the men. Similarly, I think we need to understand that Senator Obama's campaign is often covered through the race prism. And I think that independent of who we support, we ought to say together that covering these candidates through either one of these prisms is completely wrong. And we ought to be vigilant about them both, the racism in this campaign and the sexism in this campaign.

MARTIN: Rochelle?

Ms. RILEY: One thing that I hope is that Hillary Clinton's lasting legacy won't be that she created this huge divide between women. I mean, it is OK to not like a particular woman candidate and still want a woman to some day be president. And I think one of the mistakes that she made early on was she had a chance to win, whether it be on gender or her record, but then she let men usurp her campaign. And Mark Penn chose to make it about experience, and Bill Clinton chose to make it about race. And then she faced bankruptcy twice. And there were legitimate reasons why people, even women, might decide this isn't the candidate for me. And somehow you are a betrayer to your gender if you decide that this woman isn't the woman. And for a lot of women it's that it's not this woman.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm talking about the whole question of whether Senator Hillary Clinton has been subjected to sexism throughout the campaign, whether it's affected her campaign. I'm speaking with the Reverend Marcia Dyson, Rebecca Walker, Rochelle Riley, and Celinda Lake.

Let's go to this whole question of the way she's been treated by the media. And some people have raised particular questions. They've said, you know, certain language has been directed at her even, sort of, in the popular culture that similar words would not be used to describe a man or a man of color. For example, this is Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, and he's talking on CNN about election night. And the question was, apparently the B word was used to describe Senator Clinton in a newspaper editorial. And Jeffrey Toobin, another analyst, was decrying this and talking about how offensive it was. Here's Alex Castellanos replying to that. Here it is.

(Soundbite of CNN interview)

Mr. ALEX CASTELLANOS (Republican Consultant): She thinks her problem is she's a woman. Her problem is she's Hillary Clinton. And some women, by the way, are named that, and it's accurate. She is a tough lady, tough in politics - that's been her great strength. But let's face it, she can be a very abrasive, aggressive, irritating person. And a lot of voters, I think, see her that way.

MARTIN: Rebecca, I wanted to ask you. I mean, doesn't that kind of make the point that some of the Clinton supporters are saying? Do you really ever hear men in politics described that way?

Ms. WALKER: There's absolutely no question that people are addressing Senator Clinton in a way that's misogynist to gender views, the critiques. All of that is absolutely accurate. You know, what does it actually mean in the context of this race? I'm not so sure? Obama is a force. This is a historical moment that I think, in many ways, is about his rise. It's unfortunate that she is the candidate that is going to lose this race. But I think it has less to do with her gender and more to do with his dynamism. So, I think to reduce what's happening to her to simple misogyny and sexism is a mistake. And I think it is an opportunist view. It's not really helpful in helping us understand what is really going on now.

MARTIN: Marcia Dyson, I wanted to ask you, there are particularly African-American supporters who believe that Senator Clinton and her surrogate-in-chief, Bill Clinton, have played the race card using phrases like, "hardworking, white Americans." He's had campaign offices vandalized.

Reverend DYSON: Let's put it on a black women's face. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has her life threatened every day. You know, on this campaign trail you have elected officials...

MARTIN: Who was African-American.

Reverend DYSON: Who's an African-American. African-American women, elected officials in Atlanta, having bricks thrown at them, and that happened months ago. And you didn't hear a peep about that. And I think, and as an African-American woman, you know, it's like I'm at the juncture of what is the hierarchy of pain and assault for me, me being black or me being a woman? It has definitely been the sexism in this campaign towards myself and really towards the candidate.

And Hillary Clinton, you know, Rebecca, she also created a sense of vision. She's been the help for the hope that we talked about. Because there are 17 million American citizens that have been in this electoral process during the primary that says, you know what, we agree with her and they are black, white, Latino, Asian, men and women.

MARTIN: Let's let some other folks participate.

Ms. WALKER: Let's talk about, you know, sexism here. And using this moment to highlight it, I mean, if you look at some of the efforts of Bill Clinton, for instance, we are talking about NAFTA, welfare reform, many different pieces of legislation that have affected women of color in terribly undermining ways. We were not talking, you know, from the Hillary camp then about sexism. But now, at this moment, when we may have a black, male president, now, all of a sudden we want to start talking about misogyny? I mean, these are the kinds of inconsistencies that I see as being extremely problematic.

MARTIN: I want to let Rochelle get involved in this conversation. Rochelle, what about you?

Ms. RILEY: Well, I'm disheartened a little bit, just in hearing exactly what you were talking about. This idea that we are comparing our suffering and trying to stack the cards and see who has suffered more and who is suffering more and who has done more for women. And I think we are missing the point that for the first time we are supposed to be looking at two people who are running, and we don't look at their gender, and we don't look at their race. And I think if we start to really look at both of these people as people and get to choose, no matter what. Then we shouldn't look at each other and say it's a betrayal one way or the other.

MARTIN: Very quickly. We are down to our last set of minutes. So I want to raise the analogy that this is - this whole campaign in some ways has been like lancing a boil. OK? And sometimes that can be a good thing. It kind of releases the poison, or the toxins. Sometimes it just gets infected. So the question I want to - I'm sorry to impose that on people.

But I wonder, do you think at the end of the day - and I'd like to ask each of you as briefly as you can to think - at the end of the day, do you think the conversations we've been having about issues like race and gender and sexism and racism will be positive for the country, because people will have talked about some things that are hard to talk about? Or negative? It will have just, sort of, inflamed bad feelings? So, I'd like to go around and ask. Celinda, what do you think?

Ms. LAKE: Well, the first thing I'd say is I think people like ourselves disagree a lot more than the voters do. We should remember that over 70 percent of Democratic primary voters really like both of these candidates. There is not a division here. There is enormous respect for what both of them represent. And if you ask voters, two thirds of Democratic primary voters want Hillary Clinton to stay in 'til the end. And I believe, despite what you see in some polling data, that both of these candidates' bases will unite solidly, because there is a real threat here, which is called Senator McCain, who isn't good on racial policies, gender policies or a lot of other policies. So I think that will probably be very unifying.

I think these conversations are great. But I think even more important is that the voters have seen two leaders of unbelievable quality. And I think little girls and little boys, and white girls and boys, and black boys and girls, and Latino boys and girls will - their futures will never be the same, because they have seen leaders, and they have seen themselves in leadership, in a way that hadn't existed before now. So I think it's been an unbelievable positive.

MARTIN: Reverend Dyson?

Reverend DYSON: I totally agree with her. Even though you might here me complaining because I've been on the trail and taken the hits, people are excited. And it's an exciting game. It's like if it was a sports game. You have the Michael Jordan team - if he was still playing, you know, with a Kobe Bryant on it. And as far as the Democratic Party, I believe the Democratic Party is a solid party, but we are fighting for it to save our republic, and that means that somebody who can work with Republicans as well. And the bottom line, come November, Hillary Clinton said it last night at her victory in Kentucky, that we will be a united front. And I'm glad to be part of that. And I will support Senator Obama as well. It's not about, you know, hating the brother or loving the woman. It is really about loving the republic, so that the Republican Party will not have another eight years in the White House.

MARTIN: Rebecca?

Ms. WALKER: Well, I think we have a great opportunity here. I think we definitely - you know, I agree with everything that's been said, that this can be a great uniting force. That it can give us all an opportunity to discuss long frustrating issues of race and gender and, hopefully, class. But I do think people are wounded, based on some of the actions that we've had to endure in this campaign. I think some healing will have to take place. And I think it will be extremely interesting to see what and how Hillary and some of her supporters manage this transition into Obama being the nominee.

If we have people like Geraldine Ferraro saying that she would actually rather vote for John McCain than vote for Obama, then we are looking at a demographic of women who are willing to undermine their most basic human price, that of resistance to supporting a legitimate nominee.

MARTIN: Rochelle, final thought?

Ms. RILEY: President Bush just asked Congress for 165 billion dollars more for the war. And in Kentucky, Hillary Clinton won, but both she and Barack Obama, in each of their vote tallies beat John McCain. So I think that there are two opportunities. One is to change the way in which we talk about inequality in this country, and one is to change the direction of this country.

MARTIN: Rochelle Riley writes for the Detroit Free Press. She joined us from the campus of the University of Michigan. Rebecca Walker is an author. She writes for TheRoot.com. She joined us by phone from her home in Hawaii. Celinda Lake is a political strategist and pollster, and Reverend Marcia Dyson is a political commentator. They both were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you.

Ms. LAKE: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. RILEY: Thank you.

Reverend DYSON: Thank you.

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