“She Isn’t in her Prime” and other Sexist Tropes that Women in Politics Face
Annabella Gizzi | March 23rd, 2023
Annabella Gizzi | March 23rd, 2023
“Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” Silence followed CNN anchor Don Lemon’s remarks. Then one of his two female co hosts, Poppy Harlow, spoke up. Was he referring, Harlow inquired, to the prime age for bearing children? Lemon replied that he was simply relaying what Google had told him, adding that he was “just saying Nikki Haley should be careful about saying that politicians are not in their prime…because she wouldn’t be in her prime.”
One would think that after over 20 years in journalism, Don Lemon would know better than to say something so factually incorrect and blatantly sexist. But he did, and nearly a month later, he is back on air and still has not issued a formal apology to Nikki Haley (R-SC), the first woman to announce her 2024 presidential run. The most he did was call his comments “inartful” and apologize to his female co-hosts while continuing to insist that his comments were misunderstood.
The idea that a woman must fall within a certain age range to run for office (childbearing age, no less) is just one of many sexist and nearly impossible expectations society has set for women: she must be of prime childbearing age; however, she cannot have children because she needs to focus her attention on her job, but she needs children to be elected because Americans love family values. It is a cycle that repeats over and over.
Of course, age and children are not the only things women are targeted for in elections. Many women understood how Kamala Harris felt while she was attempting to get in one complete sentence without then-Vice President Mike Pence interrupting her at the 2020 vice presidential debate. Her response—“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking”—was measured and respectful but conveyed in a way that was firm enough to show that she knew she deserved better in that situation.
This is something that was seen at the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and is a common occurrence in congressional debates and hearings. Just recently during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, now-Justice Jackson was repeatedly interrupted by Senator Ted Cruz as she attempted to answer his questions. That time, another senator had to step in to intervene.
Women being interrupted mid-speech by male colleagues is not limited to politics. Countless women can relate to how Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, and Ketanji Brown Jackson felt. It is something that unfortunately can happen to any woman in any field.
Another example of blatant sexism, particularly in political media, was Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella’s comment about Lauren Boebert (R-CO) during the 2022 midterm election cycle. Boebert’s race was one of the closest in the nation, and when at one point it looked like she would lose, MSNBC anchor Joy Reid pondered what Boebert would do post-politics. Bardella, a guest on the show, responded, “Well I guess it might be a gain for OnlyFans.” There was absolutely no pushback from his two female co hosts, and Reid even laughed at the comment.
Suggesting that the next line of work for a woman who loses her run for office would be sex work is incredibly problematic and is a classic example of a sexist trope – a comment that would most certainly not be made had the politician in question been a man. Lauren Boebert, a prominent far-right conservative, has caused plenty of controversy and has made a multitude of comments that could be criticized on a policy level, but instead, Bardella felt the need to attack her personally – something else that came up quite often during the 2016 presidential election between Trump and Clinton and in general during the Trump years.
The one common denominator that all three of these examples have is that they are all partisan attacks while simultaneously being sexist attacks. Liberal men attacking conservative women and conservative men attacking liberal women. And while this is in no way a guarantee (think the 2016 GOP presidential primaries), it does seem to be a recent trend, as if it is somehow okay to make these sexist comments if they are directed towards a woman that is on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
This is something that both parties can improve upon. While feminism is typically seen as a liberal issue, it is important to remember that combating misogyny should be a shared goal and should not be confined within the borders of a certain political party. Misogyny in elections and politics will never truly be eliminated unless the movement actively seeks to eliminate it on both sides.
Barr, Jeremy, and Sarah Ellison. “CNN’s Don Lemon Says He Regrets Comment About Women’s ‘Prime’ Age.” Washington Post, 16 Feb 2023, www.washingtonpost.com/media/2023/02/16/don-lemon-nikki-haley-cnn-prime-apology.
C-SPAN. “Vice Presidential Debate Between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.” YouTube, 8 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_G0ia3JOVs.
“Jackson Confirmation Hearing, Day 1.” C-SPAN.org, 21 Mar. 2022, www.c-span.org/video/?518341-1/jackson-confirmation-hearing-day-1.
The Hill. “MSNBC Guest: Lauren Boebert Will Start ONLY FANS After Leaving Office.” YouTube, 10 Nov. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXWQLog4B6o.