04/14/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Reclaiming The Words That Smear

Bill Clark via Getty Images

“UNBECOMING.” “Miss Congeniality.” Not sufficiently “ladylike.” In politics, these words and phrases have long been used to belittle female candidates. But now, female politicians are increasingly trying to rethink — and reclaim — how language shapes how they are perceived.

Recently, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, trained her sights on a single word — “ladylike.” “Ladylike,” Ms. McCaskill told an audience at Iowa State University last month, means, “Speak out, be strong, take charge, change the world” — all traits she thinks female leaders, or even the first female president, should have, and characteristics she believes are “very, very ladylike.” The term had a very different meaning when, during her 2012 re-election campaign, her opponent, Todd Akin, then a representative, described her performance during a debate as not particularly “ladylike,” and “very aggressive.”

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