Only The Female Candidates Were Asked About Sexism At CNN’s Presidential Town Hall

Only the female presidential candidates were asked questions about sexism in CNN’s marathon town hall event Monday night, offering an inadvertently revealing case study in the subtle ways gender bias infects political campaigning. 

The network held back-to-back question-and-answer sessions with five of the 2020 Democratic contenders: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and three of the four female senators in contention for the presidential nomination: Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). A mix of male and female college students asked a range of questions at the event, with an all-male lineup of CNN hosts moderating.

But only the women had to grapple with so-called women’s issues. Sen. Klobuchar was up first and was asked what she’d do to close the wage gap, as well as her message to young female voters. Warren, up next, was asked a more personal question about how she’d avoid the sexism that Hillary Clinton faced in her campaign in 2016. Harris, whose town hall was sandwiched between Sanders’ and Buttigieg’s, was asked what she would do to “level the playing field and empower working women.”

The three senators pretty deftly navigated the questions by drawing on a mix of broad economic and policy facts, as well as more intimate details. Harris cited the gender pay gap, and both she and Klobuchar mentioned the Equal Rights Amendment. Warren explained how she just kept going through chatter about her looks during her first senate race in Massachusetts: “The early coverage is about what I’m wearing. It’s about my hair. It’s about my voice. It’s about whether or not I smile enough,” she said. “You stay after it every day. One might say you persist,” she added later.

The fact that substantive questions about gender equality were asked at all is progress and credit goes to the young women who raised these issues last night.

The problem is men should have to grapple with this women stuff, too.

“It is unfortunate that the male candidates were not asked the same questions as the women,” said Amanda Hunter, a research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Because in order to truly move the needle on gender equity, men need to understand issues and commit to change as well.”

It’s not as if women’s equality is a niche problem. Fixing the pay gap alone would mean major growth for the nation’s GDP and raising millions of families out of poverty. All five candidates were asked about, or brought up, race because it’s well-understood that we all must grapple with racial issues.

If any of the male candidates running for president wins, they’ll have to deal with these issues, said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “Sexism isn’t only relevant when we’re thinking about a woman in the White House. If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that we all — women and men alike — need to join the conversation and work to change behavior.”

Seeing sexual harassment and so-called “women’s issues” as only relevant to women is a “rhetorical and cognitive trap,” said Nikki Usher, a media professor at George Washington University. Usher, who said she watched all five hours of the CNN event last night, also said she noticed that the moderators interrupted the female candidates more than the men.

“We know empirically that  women are more frequently interrupted and their ideas are often taken less seriously than male counterparts. We should expect nothing different from male moderators hosting these town halls,” she said.

To be sure, the college students who asked questions at the CNN event weren’t supposed to coordinate their queries. The anchors, however, could’ve picked up the slack. 

Both Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon took the initiative to raise questions of whether convicted criminals should retain their right to vote during sessions with Buttigieg and Harris. Cooper, who is gay, asked Buttigieg, who is gay, about his decision to come out when he was mayor.

One wonders if a female CNN host would’ve brought up Me Too or gender discrimination.

“Having a diversity of voices cover candidates, including more women, can relieve some of those blind spots,” Hunter said.

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