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.

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…

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