Why activist group hopes you won't watch presidential debate on CNN

An anti-sexism group wants CNN to fire conservative commentator Erick Erickson over past remarks about female politicians. It's the latest sign of rising backlash, especially among women, to sexist treatment of women politicians of any political stripe.

An activist group is urging a viewer boycott of CNN's coverage of Wednesday night's presidential debate if the network doesn’t fire conservative commentator Erick Erickson for on-air and social media remarks it deems to be sexist. The offending comments include a characterization of speeches made by women at the Democratic National Convention last month as "the vagina monologues," according to UltraViolet, the group pushing the boycott petition.

There's a long history in America of female politicians of all political stripes – from Nancy Pelosi to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Sarah Palin – being subjected to sexist treatment by public and press. Their defenders emerged first on the left, but conservatives, too, are increasingly speaking out against speech they deem to be offensive to women, after having witnessed the trials of Ms. Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, during that campaign.

Some see in the latest activism by women a possible critical mass of protest – aided and abetted by the message-spreading power of social media – that may start to shift American culture and attitudes. 

“The treatment Sarah Palin received really mobilized conservative women,” says political scientist Lara Brown at Villanova University in Philadelphia, “and now we are seeing a whole new level of activism from women across the board.” This kind of inclusive activism “is new for women,” she adds.

Amy Siskind, president of The New Agenda, an activist group devoted to economic and gender equality, is also one who perceives a shift under way on the issue of sexism toward women in the public sphere.

When it comes to politics, “sexism against conservative women is still sexism,” she says. “Palin didn’t have anyone to defend her.” Since then, she adds, there has been a shift toward that recognition among feminists whom she says previously ignored sexism directed toward conservative women.

In a 2009 article published on The Huffington Post, Ms. Siskind laid out her rallying call to all feminists. “When is sexism acceptable? The answer should be never. Yet for many feminists in our country, only certain types of women have been worth defending.”

Women began to organize behind liberal candidates back when Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984, says Professor Brown. Among other things, the first female vice presidential candidate was photographed carrying laundry detergent to reassure the “sexist swine,” as columnist Russell Baker put it, that she would not neglect her domestic duties. Not until 2008, with the Palin shellacking, did this same kind of organized defense against derogatory treatment for women candidates from all political perspectives begin to coalesce, she adds. 

The New Agenda has taken on liberal media figures such as comedian/commentator Bill Maher. Last March, Siskind says, her group contacted HBO and its parent company, Time-Warner, after Mr. Maher tarred Palin and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann with epithets such as "bimbo" and others that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

While Maher gave what Siskind calls a “half-apology,” CNN has been silent on the request to fire Mr. Erickson. The cable channel did not return calls for comment.

A shift to a more inclusive attitude is visible in bipartisan initiatives such as Name It. Change It. (founded in 2010), a joint project with Women’s Media Center, She Should Run (founded in 2011), and Political Parity (founded in 2009). In May, the group mounted an online campaign against Hustler magazine in defense of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp, about whom the magazine had created a highly sexualized satire.

Boycott advocate UltraViolet, founded by Nita Chaudhary, whose liberal credentials include move-on.org, has also shifted to a bipartisan position. The group was founded seven months ago to combat sexism wherever it is found – in the media, the state house, or the boardroom – and under whatever political banner, liberal or conservative. The group has mounted some 17 petitions this year, including a call to Facebook to put a woman on its board (the social media giant recently announced its first female board member).

“We are strictly bipartisan,” says Ms. Chaudhary. “Our goal is to target the influencers in our culture.” 

Activists targeting the next generation of women are behind a postelection event, Sister Giant, to be held in Los Angeles in November. It is being convened by author Marianne Williamson in conjunction with the Women's Campaign School at Yale University. “Boycotts and petitions are important, because they are women speaking out,” says Ms. Williamson. Many young women are reluctant to consider involvement in politics, she says, because they see the unfair treatment women candidates receive and “they are worried about the way they will be treated.”

Statistics on women holding political office are not particularly encouraging – 16 percent in Congress and less than 24 percent in state houses nationwide, she says. “We have to begin the process of taking our power to the next stage,” including issues beyond combating sexist treatment, she says. “Are we ready? Yes." 

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