So it was no surprise that Joe Biden's choice of Kamala Harris to be his running mate was instantly swaddled in dire predictions about the deluge of sexist attacks to come.
Indeed, even before Biden had named Harris, a group of prominent women affiliated with such left-wing organizations as Planned Parenthood, Emily's List, NARAL, and the National Women's Law Center fired off a memo to news organizations, warning that they would be guilty of sexism if in the course of the coming campaign they report on the ambition, likeability, electability, temper, appearance, leadership shortcomings, or political relationships of the Democrat's vice-presidential candidate — whoever she might be.
"We will be watching you," intoned the memo. "We expect change. We expect a new way of thinking about your role in how she is treated and the equality she deserves relative to the three men running for President and Vice President."
Some of those news organizations were already prospectively decrying such "sexist" outrages. The New York Times on Tuesday published an article denouncing "the strangely enduring criticisms that travel with women in politics," such as a reputation for having too much ambition, or for rubbing people the wrong way. On Friday, NBC News ran an essay by University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler bewailing "the attacks and criticisms" being leveled at Harris: "She's 'extraordinarily nasty.' She's 'a cop.' She's too conservative — or she's too liberal. She changes her mind constantly."
Only bigotry towards women, Butler suggested, could explain such disapproval: "Funny how a competent, successful woman accomplishing something heretofore unprecedented seems to do that to people."
All these criticisms are routinely leveled at male politicians too, of course. John McCain's temper was much discussed during his 2008 run for the White House, and the flip-flops of John Kerry were exhaustively enumerated when he ran in 2004. But somehow these standard themes turn into "sexism" when the candidate is female. And Democratic.
Yet it wasn't that long ago that genuinely sexist attacks were lobbed at a woman who was running for national office, and few if any liberal journalists or feminist leaders seemed to care. Many, in fact, were doing the lobbing.
When John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, the nation got a good hard look at the way political opposition can fuel raw, ugly misogyny. Liberal hostility to Palin was understandable: She was a staunch conservative with undeniable charisma and the reputation of a reformer. For a while she seemed to have a brilliant future in national politics, and Democrats reasonably enough perceived her as a threat. But as I wrote at the time in the Boston Globe, much of the hostility to Palin was expressed in poisonously blatant sexual terms:
"Ideologically, she is their hardcore pornographic centerfold spread," Cintra Wilson wrote in Salon. "She's such a power-mad, backwater beauty-pageant casualty, it's easy to write her off and make fun of her. But in reality I feel as horrified as a ghetto Jew watching the rise of National Socialism."
On the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, commentator Heather Mallick was even cruder. Palin appeals to "the white trash vote" with her "toned-down version of the porn actress look," she wrote. "Husband Todd looks like a roughneck . . . What normal father would want Levi 'I'm a [bleeping] redneck' Johnson prodding his daughter?"
From radio talk-show host Randi Rhodes came the smutty suggestion that the governor of Alaska has an unhealthy interest in adolescent males: "She's friends with all the teenage boys," Rhodes told her audience last week. "You have to say no when your kids say, 'Can we sleep over at the Palins?' No! NO!"
Eve Ensler, the playwright best known for "The Vagina Monologues," described her "Sarah Palin nightmares" for the Huffington Post. She recalled how Republican delegates chanted "Drill, drill, drill!" when Palin called for more oil exploration in her speech at the St. Paul convention. "I think of teeth when I think of drills. I think of rape. I think of destruction. I think of domination. . . . I think of pain."
There was a lot more where that came from. CBS late-night star David Letterman sneered on the air that Palin looked like a "slutty flight attendant," while ABC's Jimmy Kimmel sniggered about seeing Palin "in high heels and a bikini [and] all of a sudden, I am for drilling in Alaska." One columnist called her "the closest thing Republican strategists could find to a man with a vagina."
These were not the supposedly sexist "tropes" that lurk in standard political analysis about a candidate's demeanor or ambition or likeability. They were gross and insulting examples of rank sexual objectification, and they surged through coverage of McCain's running mate like sewage through a drainpipe.
And even when the media purported to focus on Palin's suitability for the job, much of the criticism, as Tim Graham of the Media Research recalled this week, revolved around the fact that she had recently given birth to a baby with Down syndrome:
Within minutes, then-CNN reporter John Roberts suggested Palin might turn out to be a crummy mother: "There's also this issue that on April 18, she gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome. . . . Children with Down syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?"
Then-ABC anchor Bill Weir piled on, asking one McCain campaign aide: "Adding to the brutality of a national campaign, the Palin family also has an infant with special needs. What leads you, the senator and the governor to believe that one won't affect the other in the next couple of months?"
Then-NBC anchor Amy Robach asked, "If Sarah Palin becomes vice president, will she be shortchanging her kids, or will she be shortchanging the country?"
Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn suggested mothers can't handle the demands of the vice presidency: "Her first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at 3 in the morning and one of her children is really sick, what choice will she make?"
In the 21st century, not even a hidebound conservative would challenge a Democratic woman's suitability for office on the grounds that she cannot simultaneously be a competent parent and an effective elected official. Even on the right, just about everyone recognizes that as a classic example of a sexist double standard — an objection no one ever raises about candidates who are fathers. That double standard was clear in 2008, too. But the target was Palin, so the rules were different.
To repeat, there were perfectly understandable reasons for liberals and Democrats to recoil from Palin's view and want her to be defeated. Again and again and again, however, they attacked her not just for her political opinions or her lack of knowledge, but explicitly in terms of her sex. When McCain picked Palin, women's activists didn't compile a 32-page "fairness guide" to non-sexist coverage of women in national politics, the way UltraViolet, Women's March, and other advocacy groups did this week in a preemptive defense of Kamala Harris. That only happens when a woman is named to a Democratic ticket.
Last week, Palin congratulated Harris and wished her well. "I hope," she said, "that the media will treat her candidacy not as personally rough as they treated mine." It was a gracious sentiment, but Harris has nothing to worry about.