Women face sexist politics, may see net loss in Congress

NEW YORK -- Even with many high-profile female candidates, the just-ended campaign was rife with sexism ranging from snarky fashion critiques to sexual innuendo. And when all the ballots are counted, women may hold fewer seats in the new Congress than the outgoing one.

"It looks as if we're going backward rather than forward," Siobhan Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation, said at a teleconference Thursday discussing the prevalence of political sexism.

Two years after Hillary Clinton nearly captured the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, female candidates dealt with comments about their hair and seamy, anonymous Web postings. Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- second in the presidential line of succession -- was widely vilified by Republican candidates in ways that often seemed gender-specific.

Bennett said the prospect of sexist attacks deterred many women from running and was a reason why scores of other countries have a higher proportion of women in their national legislatures than does the U.S., which remains at 17 percent.

Depending on the outcome of a few undecided races, women will at best hold even in the Senate with 17 seats, and could lose one or two of their 73 seats in the House. That would be the first such decline since 1978.

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The number of female governors will remain at six, including three new Republicans: Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

Women's groups monitoring campaign sexism felt that some of the GOP attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. history-- were misogynistic, and they were irked that conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh played "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead" on his radio show Wednesday to celebrate the California Democrat's impending demotion.

Three groups supporting an expanded political role for women teamed up in recent months with an initiative called "Name It, Change It," -- intended to swiftly protest instances of perceived political sexism.

On Thursday, the New York-based Women's Media Center and its partners announced "awards" for what they considered the most flagrant examples. Among those cited were the blog Gawker, for running a tawdry anonymous posting from a man claiming a brief romantic encounter with Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, and the Boston Herald, for a column in which a minor party candidate's hair was likened to a Brillo pad.

Joining the teleconference was Krystal Ball, the losing Democratic candidate in a race for a U.S. House seat in Virginia. In mid-campaign, she had to deal with the fallout of an Internet-posted photo showing her in a suggestive outfit and pose at a costume party six years ago.

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