The State of Women in Politics: At Duke, in North Carolina’s Single-Gender General Assembly, and in Western Culture

At all levels, 2011 has been a fascinating year for women in politics; steps forward have been countered by steps backward.  The national news is tuning into the big problems our state faces: Jezebel today ran an article called “Republicans in North Carolina want to resegregate our state and kick women out office”

Where are we now, and in what direction are we going?

At Duke

  • The ‘political scene’ on campus has become increasingly female-dominated.  The President of Duke College Republicans, the President of Duke Libertarians, one of the two Duke Democrats Co-Presidents, and both of the Duke Political Union Co-Chairs are women.
  • Women comprise almost exactly half of the Duke Democrats active membership, at 17 of 38 Duke Democrats members who belong to a committee
  • In the 2010-2011 academic year, the Elect Her campaign drew attention to the severe underrepresentation of women in Duke Student Government.  As of January 31, 2011, these were the breakdowns of Duke Student Government:  There were 5 men in DSG Executive Board, and 0 women.  There were 10 men on the DSG cabinet, and 3 women.  There were 31 men in DSG senate, and 9 women.  Of the 41 previous DSG presidents, 34 had been men, and 7 had been women.  This trend appears to have been somewhat reversed; of the 7 executive board members during the 2012-2012 school year (the board has expanded), 4 are women and 3 are men.
All of this appears to be great news.  What are the lingering obstacles and challenges?
  • Does our campus (and more specifically, do our political organizations) accept or reject sexist or sexual comments about women in power?
  • Does Duke Democrats tolerate or reject rhetoric within the broader liberal community that draws attention to the gender or physical appearance of conservative women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman?  Do we focus on the policy issues that distinguish ourselves from the conservative movement, or do we fall prey to cheap attacks?
  • Has Duke College Republicans fully recovered from the culture that the Justin Robinette investigation in 2010 revealed, which included emails with links to pornography sent over Duke College Republicans listservs?
  • Can Duke Democrats, Duke College Republicans, and other on campus political organizations work together to create a Duke Political honor code about the terms of political debate and rhetoric we hold each other to, affirming a commitment to a level of professionalism and respect in our discussion of each other and of the political candidates of all parties?
  • Is the vision of a leader on Duke’s campus still male?  During the 2011 Young Trustee Election, the flyer for the Duke Political Union Young Trustee Forum had the text on a flyer that featured a male torso wearing a tie as the backdrop.

In North Carolina

The video below, created by the North Carolina Democratic Party highlights a deeply concerning trend: There are currently only 6 women in the North Carolina State Senate (of 50 senators).  The Republican-controlled General Assembly during 2010 redistricitng “double-bunked” 3 of those districts, meaning that if the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn the redistricting, we will be down to only 3 women in the general assembly.  Of the 51 appointments made by the North Carolina General Assembly between July of 2008 and June of 2009, only 7 were women.

Our higher profile offices don’t fare much better in terms of gender equity: Beverly Purdue is the Governor, but our congressional delegation (U.S. Senators and Congresspeople) has a ratio of 2:1 male to female.

In Western Culture

The sexualization of female politicians is widespread and evident

  • There is no evidence to suggest that this trend is declining, and some commentators suggest it may be rising
    • From Newsweek magazine: “The sexual references are pervasive: they come from left, right, and center, and range from gushing to highly offensive. Harper’s asked, ‘Is Sarah Palin Porn?’ as others quizzed the former governor about whether she had breast implants. Right Wing News compiled a list of the hottest conservative women in new media. Playboy even ran an outrageous piece titled ‘Ten Conservative Women I’d Like to Hate F–k,’ which read like a sick attempt to make rape cool.”[1]
    • In 2007, The Sun, a British newspaper with the world’s tenth largest circulation, published an article entitled “The Best of Breastminster,” whose stated purpose was to “rate MP’s mammaries” on a one to ten scale.[2]
    • The 2012 Presidential campaign have been ridden with sexual or gender-based attacks on female politicians.  Herman Cain called Nancy Pelosi “Princess Nancy” in his comments about health-care reform, something that even Former George W. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino objected to saying: “Ay yi yi, former Speaker Pelosi called a princess in the debate? Not fair. We may disagree on policy, but she earned the Speaker title.”  Newsweek called Michelle Bachmann the “Queen of Rage.”  Fox News used the phrase “cat-fight” to describe the possibility that both Bachmann and Palin would be in the race; would we ever use that language to describe the competition between Perry and Palin?
  • Discussion of the fashion choices, hairstyle and makeup of female politicians is considered fair-play even in “serious” publications
    • In September of 2005, the Washington Post ran a story entitled “The Troubling Decision of [Supreme Court nominee] Harriet Miers,” where the decision in question was Miers’ choice of eyeliner.  The article also detailed her jacket, brooch, earrings, necklace, her ID lanyard, her haircut, and the rest of her makeup, and provided extensive sartorial commentary.[3]
    • Newspapers frequently run stories that allude to the wardrobe choices of female politicians only, even in contexts where the females are well-outnumbered by males
    • The coverage of Bachmann’s decision to have a french manicure in one Republican debate is a great example of this!
  • Being physically unattractive does not provide female politicians immunity from sexualization or focus on their physical appearance
    • From Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter: “When Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative politician, appeared on the comedy quiz show Have I Got News For You in 2007, a large number of the jokes centred on her unsexy looks. The participants quipped about what it would be like to see her pole-dancing, complained that a glance from her would make them lose an erection, and commented freely and nastily on her appearance. Or when Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour party, commented on the need for more women in power in 2009, one male commentator responded in the Spectator magazine, ‘So – Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean, after a few beers, obviously, not while you were sober … I think you wouldn’t.’”[4]
    • Even while criticizing female politicians when their image is seen as too “sexy” or “exploitative” of their good looks, the press continues to criticize female politicians who are seen as too dowdy.  In Britain, the Daily Mail mocked the home secretary for her “prison warden” haircut and her “mannish pinstripe,[5]” while CNN mocked German chancellor Angela Merkel for her “unstylish haircut and frumpish appearance.”[6]
  • Emphasis of female politicians as mothers also sexualizes them by paying undue attention to their capacity to reproduce, relative to their opinions on political issues or capabilities for public office. 
    • In 2000 races for U.S. Governor and Senate female candidates were significantly more likely than were male candidates to have their gender, children and marital status mentioned across both their primary and general election coverage. [7]
    • An Estonian report on the representation of female politicians in press states that media tend to represent the role of a mother and a political career as mutually exclusive spheres highlighting, for instance, cases of “abandoned” small children.[8]

The sexualization of female politicians can be a political liability

  • Research indicates that attacks on female politicians that make specific reference to their gender (whether in a sexual or a non-sexual sense) are particularly damaging to them in voters eyes
    • “Calling a female candidate such sexist names as “ice queen” and “mean girl” significantly undercuts her political standing, a new study of voter attitudes finds, doing more harm than gender-neutral criticism based solely on her policy positions and actions.  ‘I was stunned at the magnitude of the effect of even mild sexism,’ says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducted the survey.”  When likely voters were asked how favorably the felt towards a hypothetical congressional candidate named Jane Smith, 59% viewed her favorably after an initial description, 25% after an attack without sexist labels, and only 17% viewed her favorably after she was called a “ice queen,” “mean girl” or “prostitute.”[9]
Several student groups will be teaming up to discuss the role that gender, sex and sexuality play in on and off campus politics.  If you would like to join the discussion, contact Elena at

[1] Baird, Julia. “Too Hot to Handle: Stop Ogling Republican Women.” Newsweek 2 July 2010. Web.

[2] “The Best of Breastminster.” The Sun [London] 12 Oct. 2007. Print.

[3] Givnan, Robert. “A Troubling Decision by Harriet Miers.” The Washington Post 28 Oct. 2005. Web

[4] Walter, Natasha (2011-05-26). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (pp. 120-121). Hachette Digital. Kindle Edition.

[5] Liz Jones, ‘Sarkozy’s Sirens: why are French politicians so much more glamorous than ours?’, Daily Mail, 12 March 2008

[6] Cooke, ‘Analysis: Germans focus on TV debate’, 2 August 2005, CNN, retrieved 2 November 2008 from

[7] Banwart, Mary Christine, Dianne G. Bystrom and Terry Robertson (2003) From the primary to the general election. A comparative analysis of candidate media coverage in mixed-gender 2000 races for Governor and U.S. Senate. American Behavioral Scientist 46(5), 658-676.

[8] Estonia (2004) Mass Media in (re)distribution of power. Ministry of Social Affairs of the Republic of Estonia. Report for the project “Mass media in the (re)distribution of power” funded by the EU in terms of the Community Framework Strategy on Gender Equality (2001-2005).

[9] Page, Susan. “Study: Sexist Insults Hurt Female Politicians.” USA Today 23 Sept. 2010. Print.

Published by Elena Botella

Elena Botella is a Duke Undergraduate in the Class of 2013, majoring in Economics and Math.

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