I never understood the toxic level of sexism in our society until I experienced it firsthand. And then I realized something else: Politics remains one of the most rampant breeding grounds for misogyny.
In 2001, I ran for Mayor in my hometown of Allentown, PA. Even in a place I've lived for over 20 years--where I've been a PTA president, founded, lead, and served on numerous civic organizations--I experienced the most breathtaking sexism.
During my very first stump speech (in front of a room of men), I was interrupted by the chair of that meeting who said,
"Sam, I want to ask a question all the men in this room have been dying to ask you: Just what are your measurements?"
I was in disbelief. And if this wasn't bad enough, a reporter who witnessed this unabashed display of sexism wrote an article about that stump speech--and didn't even mention the incident.
Unfortunately, that experience was only a hint of what would come my way when I ran for Congress in 2008. During my campaign in PA-15, a known anti-woman blogger posted the most heinously misogynistic comment I have ever seen on the Lehigh Valley Ramblings blog. It read:
"Sammy Bennett is phony political w**** who gives good h**d and makes cheap, blatant political opportunists look like Mother F****** Teresa. Even her p**** is made of plastic."
Disbelief doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. But at least, I thought, it's just a comment on a blog.
And it was-- until my local paper, the Morning Call, decided to print the quote on their front page. And not just once. They ran it day after day after day, with a big picture of me right next to it.
I guess all press isn't good press after all. I was stunned and angry by this hostile and sexist attack. I wanted to fight back; I wanted to sue the paper. But I was advised by my attorney never to sue anybody who prints ink by the barrelful. My top tier national political consultants insisted that I not criticize the paper, because they would have to cover me again later in my campaign.
Ultimately, I never took action. To this day, I consider this to be one of my biggest life mistakes. Little did I know that I would be given the chance to tackle this issue not just for myself--but for all women candidates across the country.
Fighting the media's sexist coverage of women candidates has been one of my top goals since I became the President/CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum (WCF) in 2009.
And thanks to the help of like-minded leaders at Political Parity, the Women's Media Center, and Lake Research Partners, a groundbreaking national campaign has been launched to make my goal a reality: Name It. Change It.
I see this as a pivotal moment for American women. For too long, a toxic media environment has stood as a barrier to women achieving positions in all levels of public office.
It's time to say, enough is enough. No longer will we sit idly by while reporters analyze the wardrobe of women leaders instead of their achievements. No longer will a woman's menstruation be a deterrent for support. We will not accept talks of cougars, MILFs, or Ice Queens. Commanding and decisive women will not be called nagging or shrill; nor will their empathy be dismissed as 'too emotional.'
This all-too-common sexist language has been damaging the campaigns and careers of women candidates for years, still nothing has changed. But we now have the research to prove it.
On September 23rd, the Name It. Change It. campaign will unveil groundbreaking research from Lake Research Partners on how sexism damages women candidates. Celinda Lake will present their findings on the public's reaction to sexist coverage, how that affects their vote, and what happens if the candidate responds.
I will not rest until no woman has to endure what I did when I ran for U.S. Congress. When I was attacked, no one said a word.
It's time to break the silence. It's time to amplify our voices. It's time to Name It and Change It.
I urge you to join our Name It. Change It. campaign today.
Follow Sam Bennett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WCFonline