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The Hornet

Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

Campaigning-while-female: #MeToo sparks stories from women in politics

By Megan Showalter

Representation in the Assembly. (Courtesy of the California State Assembly)

She was going to meet a colleague in the political arena, who was also a doctor, at St. Jude Hospital. When she arrived, her colleague was playing around in a wheelchair while he waited. Only a handful of hospital administrators witnessed what happened next.

He smiled as she entered and said loudly, “Hey, doll. Why don’t you come sit on my lap?”

Everyone in the room looked at each other, shocked. Some laughed it off or giggled nervously. Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, then a Fullerton city council member, remembers being embarrassed but not wanting to make a scene.

Later, while walking down a hallway a woman approached her and said, “I’m really sorry you had to go through that.”

Beyond the #MeToo public commentary of recent days, women can be attacked in much more subtle and self-esteem-eroding ways. This is no more apparent than in the political world.

Quirk-Silva says women in politics are targeted with a “distinct pattern” of criticism from both women and men in the political sphere. Everything “from how you wear your hair, how you dress, if you’ve gained weight” is on the table for discussion, she said.

Pet names, speaking to female colleagues on a first name basis during meetings while referring to male colleagues as “councilmember last name,” and interrupting a female speaker while they are on the dais seem to be methods male politicians use to degrade their female colleagues, says Quirk-Silva.

The political colleague that Quirk-Silva referred to at St. Jude was contacted and denies the interaction happened. He declined to provide details.

Last year, Sen. Janet Nguyen, who represents the 34th District in the California State Senate, was escorted off the Senate floor for speaking out while the Senate was honoring a former legislator who supported Communism; Nguyen, whose family fled communist Vietnam, personally objected to the honor.

Fellow State Senator Patricia Bates responded in the aftermath saying, “This sad episode is a textbook case of men trying to silence a woman whose views they did not like.”

Quirk-Silva shares her expertise in education while filming a documentary. (Courtesy of the assemblywoman’s staff)

Quirk-Silva also remembers when she and Pam Keller were on the Fullerton City Council together, their male colleagues seemed to demean their intelligence by calling them “little kindergarten teachers,” referring to their backgrounds in education.

One anonymous critic called Jane Rands—a Fullerton resident who ran for city council in previous election cycles—a “bra burning tree-hugger” in the comments section of the Friends for Fullerton’s Future website, a political blog and watchdog group.

“It cheesed me off, not because I thought that to be much of an insult, but that I would prefer relevant issues in my platform to be the subject of criticism,” said Rands in an interview.

The Assembly rules committee. (Courtesy of the California State Assembly)

Critiques of women running for or holding office often boil down to personal criticisms of a woman’s appearance or home life, according to experts. This phenomenon has been labeled “campaigning-while-female.”

The most glaring example of this was the 2008 presidential election, which saw criticisms of both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Such criticisms ranged from their intelligence to their looks.

Most recently, LA Times columnist and cartoonist David Horsey called Presidential Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a “chunky soccer mom,” a comment which drew a firestorm of criticism.

“When I read over how I wrote it, it can be taken as a much nastier shot, and believe it or not, I didn’t mean it that way. The paragraphs looking back were incredibly foolish and obtuse. I just failed to see how those words were going to be received,” wrote Horsey in a later apology.

California is often seen as a progressive state, however, it remains a battleground for women in politics.

The representation of women in national and state politics has increased over the decades. However, in California it is two steps forward and one step back: Women in the state legislature have actually decreased over the last decade. From 2009 to 2017, the number of women in the state Senate has decreased by 31 percent and by 15 percent in the Assembly, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Right now, women only make up 21.7 percent of the California legislature, compared to 27.5 percent in 2009. In Orange County, women make up 25 percent of the representatives to the state legislature.

Quirk-Silva speaks at the California State Assembly Jobs Committee. (Courtesy of the assemblywoman’s staff)

One cause of decreased representation could be the negative media coverage that women in politics receive.

A research organization called Political Parity found that “women are as likely as men to win when they run, but they must be more qualified than the male candidate to be successful.”

However, “media coverage dissuades more women from running for office than men,” according to Political Parity.

Quirk-Silva agrees that the negative coverage of women convinces other women not to run for office. If she had realized this when she initially chose to run for office, it may have made her think twice as well, she said.

Critics might say “you put yourself in those situations” or “you have to have a tough skin” for this business, she said. “But we don’t have to take it.”

This story originally appeared in December on Megan Showalter’s website, a project of Fullerton College’s Advanced Reporting and Writing course. Megan Showalter works within the political, PR, and journalism fields to drive the common conversation and direct people toward the unheard voices of the community.