05/19/2015 06:26 pm ET Updated May 19, 2016

Sexist Cartoon Depiction of Hillary Clinton Published by McClatchy's Sacramento Bee

Ethan Miller via Getty Images

Co-authored with Kevin Hall, a clean air activist and organizer in Fresno, Calif.

The 2016 presidential campaign season is upon us all too soon, and editorial cartoonists across the nation are busily drawing caricatures of candidates. Designed to be instantly recognizable to the reader, these renditions usually emphasize a person's distinguishing physical features, such as ears, hairstyle or nose.

So it came as a shock to see likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton reduced to a headless pair of crossed legs and a campaign button in the May 1st edition of the Sacramento Bee, a McClatchy publication. Editorial board member and political cartoonist Jack Ohman's approach to drawing one of the most accomplished and inspiring female politicians of our time left us dumbstruck. It is a gratuitously insulting, sexist depiction.

In a public radio interview, Ohman stated he did not intend the cartoon to be sexist. He also claimed to have the full backing of his editors and publisher.

Maybe so, but it's still sexist. To render a portrayal of any woman as a pair of legs is gender stereotyping in its purest form, and it follows a centuries-old pattern of repression of women that seeks to relegate their position to one of inferiority to men in which their primary role is to bear children. All too often this treatment is applied to women who seek higher office. Ohman goes so far in his drawing as to give the reader a view up and under Clinton's skirt. (Ironically, if she is known for any particular distinguishing characteristic, it's that she wears pantsuits exclusively.)

Former Sierra Club director Carl Pope once observed that racism is like a virus: one can have it and not know it. The same holds true for sexism. People unconsciously commit acts of racism or sexism despite their best intentions. The real challenge arises when someone confronts us on this behavior. Can we drop our defenses and fully consider the reaction we've triggered?

For his part, Ohman, who serves as current president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, has instead accused his critics of seeking to defame him. That is not our intent, and by "our" we refer to the hundreds of people, including many prominent women's rights advocates, who have signed a petition calling on The Bee to apologize for the cartoon.

We fully recognize and support everyone's right to free speech and the vital importance of a free press. We also acknowledge this is a sensitive time for editorial cartoonists in light of recent events in Texas and France. We are not seeking to silence Ohman.

However, we do expect major news outlets such as the Sacramento Bee to hold themselves to a higher standard than less scrupulous publications. An apology to its readers would be appropriate, particularly if accompanied by a commitment to more carefully reviewing its portrayal of women -- especially women in positions of power in all fields -- in future cartoons, editorials and articles.

As the campaign season progresses, it is important as a society to set a respectful tone for the sake of all candidates -- they deserve fair, unbiased coverage.