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 councilor 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 councilors 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.”