Female debate moderators taking the stage

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • October 25, 2012

Women verrill
CNN’s Candy Crowley moderated the second presidential debate, empowering women and raising important questions on gender equality.
CNN’s Candy Crowley moderated the second presidential debate, empowering women and raising important questions on gender equality.

Less than 17 percent of Congress is made up of women. Five percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, according to Forbes.  A recent Newsweek report shows that 60 percent of newspaper reporters are men.

It is no secret that women are underrepresented in positions of power. Last week, however, for the first time in history, women made up half of the debate moderators in the election cycle. Yet, at a time when feminists should be cheering at the female representation on stage, the political commentary instead reflects how far women really are from being equal.

Twenty years ago, Emerson professor Carole Simpson was the first female journalist to moderate the contest between presidential candidates. Two women had the privilege of standing on that stage this year—Candy Crowley at the town hall debate and Martha Raddatz at the vice presidential debate—the ultimate achievement for reporters covering the political realm.

There is something really empowering for young girls watching a woman hold a role of authority and tell two candidates who are arguably competing for the most powerful position in the world that their time is up. For just a second, a little girl somewhere in this country saw Crowley tell the President of the United States to wait his turn and perhaps thought that she could be anything she wanted.

On his show, I heard conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh not only make fun of Carole Simpson by doing an impression of her with a lisp, but go as far as to call Crowley “just a CNN infobabe.” I witnessed the sexist commentary on Twitter, from tweets jesting about Crowley’s stripper name to an analysis of her performance that ranged from “too aggressive” to “too apologetic.”

The first debate moderator of this cycle, Jim Lehrer, had gotten flack for his subpar performance and his utter inability to control the candidates. With #PoorJim trending worldwide on Twitter, I find it shocking how critical people seemed of the female alternatives on social media. Similarly, Bob Schieffer was so hands-off during the debate, my Twitter feed was full of punchlines that he had fallen asleep and his “Obama Bin Laden” gaffe served as a point of contention. Schieffer got a few criticisms and jokes thrown at him; Crowley had media sources like PolicyMic call for her to resign for fact checking.

When the male moderators so clearly lacked, it was not with traditional male stereotypes they were judged, but rather on the merit of their words and tactics. When it was ladies night, the classic female myths that have served to oppress females in the professional world—that they are either aggressive bitches or emotional damsels in distress—reigned free. As both women showed strong performances, took charge on time, and asked strong follow-up questions, it is disheartening to see the public respond so negatively to strong women roles.

Sexism is nothing new for female journalists, but to truly combat this kind of prejudice is to call it out for what it is. A few weeks ago, Jennifer Livingston, a female newscaster in LaCrosse, Wis., responded to an email attack about her being overweight on air.  “I am much more than a number on a scale,” she said after taking the opportunity to point out that October is Bullying Awareness Month.      This week, democratic candidate running for the Arizona Senate seat, Richard Carmona, received backlash for telling a male debate moderator that he was prettier than Crowley.

And many females have stood up to the inequality in a similar way. Women spoke out against the sexist tweets in support of the two moderators. Praising their tenacity and control over the debate, feminist role models tweeted, blogged, and posted on Facebook for the history being made. The Women’s Media Center hosted a forum for the public’s reaction facilitated by female activists under the hashtag #sheparty. Feminist Friends, a consulting organization for women’s advocates, got involved in the debate, tweeting,“The more a woman is featured on TV in these kinds of roles, the less their ‘aggressiveness’ will become remarkable.”

“It’s almost as if women are, like, perfectly capable of doing this job or something. Maybe they should do it more than one every 20 years,” tweeted Feministing, an online community for feminist bloggers. The live-tweet followed with another line of sass, “Oh my goodness, fact checking from the moderator. Isn’t it weird how the two women moderators have been good and the guy was abysmal.”

The fact that young feminist leaders are speaking out for equal representation is encouraging. This is a civil rights movement for our generation: True equality for women means equal access to opportunity and an end to the media misrepresentation. Young girls believe they can be what they see. The next step towards ending the stigma is to have a women in the debate, not moderating it.