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The Ms. Foundation for Women

Words Matter: What the McCain Debacle Reveals about Politics in '08

Sara K. Gould

It's all too familiar. At a campaign event on Tuesday, a woman in the audience stood up and asked Senator John McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?"

Laughter ensued...

A man in the audience said, "I thought she was talking about my ex-wife."

More laughter ensued...

And Senator McCain said, "That's an excellent question."

That's right. A woman presidential candidate is referred to as a bitch and it's an excellent question.

Nothing should surprise us about the debasement of women in our political discourse-but it must shock us each time that it happens. And we must heed what this "incident" says about the debasement of women in our society and across the world.

Many in the corporate media have trivialized the insult or rushed to McCain's defense. We applaud those who have not.

It's not trivial, it's telling. When a woman running for president of the United States is referred to as a bitch, and the response is laughter rather than accountability on the part of politicians and the press, the curtain is pulled back to expose the stark reality of sexism and misogyny that permeates our culture.

Why would a United States Senator respond as he did? That is a deeply troubling question.

Did a campaign plant the insult? Was McCain a coward in the face of his base? Or perhaps most troubling, did the Senator see nothing wrong with the query?

None of these answers are acceptable in 21st century American politics. As we pursue a war that our government justifies as "exporting democracy" (including women's rights), let's look at our own democracy. And let's look at our own dismally sexist and misogynist record.

Women, a majority of the nation's population, are still the subjects of routine verbal assault and physical violence-31% of women in the U.S. report being physically or sexually abused by their husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives and 40% of girls aged 14-17 report knowing a peer who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend. From "Imus in the Morning" to pervasive images of hyper-sexualized of girls and young women in the media, the culture war on women and girls goes on.

In fact, only six months after Imus' virulently sexist and racist remarks, ABC Radio-one of the largest corporate media venues in the country with an audience platform of nearly 105 million-is planning to resume his program in December. And according to The New York Observer, "many of Mr. Imus' big-name guests from the worlds of politics and media appear ready to welcome him back with open arms, unconcerned about the inevitable charges that by returning to the scene of the crime, they're accessories to buddy-buddy bigotry."

Meanwhile, our culture demonizes the full expression of women's sexual and reproductive rights to hold women "in their place." From abstinence-only education to the Supreme Court's decision on "partial birth" abortion, the Right uses this fear to promulgate policy and public opinion that further prevents women from controlling their own lives.

At the Ms. Foundation for Women, we believe it is everyone's responsibility-from elected officials to each member of a community-to confront the sexism, racism and homophobia that excludes so many from positions of power and policy-making arenas, not to mention access to living-wage jobs, affordable housing and health care.

It's time for a strong and resounding response from our media and our policy makers. Senator John McCain should certainly apologize, but we must ask more of all of our politicians and journalists. It's time for every one of them-from presidential candidates to cable TV commentators-to hold themselves and each other accountable. As we move through the campaign season, it's beyond time to demand that our candidates are held to democratic standards in which there is no place for racism, sexism and homophobia in our nation's discourse or the policies that govern people's lives.

Sara K. Gould is the President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Ms. Gould also created the Institute for Women's Economic Empowerment, which has provided thousands of grassroots leaders with the skills and resources to help women achieve greater economic independence.

Copyright © Ms. Foundation for Women

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