Powerful Jewish women face vicious tropes — they’re being used against Biden’s VP choice, too

Left: Words said about female presidential candidates and politicians. Right: A stock image of women. (Design by Laura E. Adkins for JTA/Getty Images)

By Meredith Jacobs

Regardless of who Joe Biden names as his running mate, we know what she’ll face. In the last few weeks, there have been leaks about “allies” warning Biden about naming Kamala Harris as his running mate because she “had no remorse” for the gall of actually competing in the primaries. Or comments that Harris “rubs people the wrong way” but that Karen Bass doesn’t. Or that Susan Rice should smile more.

It’s a trope as old as time — reframe a strong, ambitious woman as a bitch. Pit two women against each other. Tell a woman to smile. What’s next? Publicly worrying that once a month she might become “hysterical”?

Add racism, and all of this is heightened further if the candidate is also a woman of color. If this is what we’re hearing from allies of Biden, what’s going to happen once the Republicans weigh in?


Get ready, folks. The tap of misogyny has opened and the floodwaters are about to pour forth.

My own organization, Jewish Women International, represents more than 120 years of standing and fighting at the forefront of social justice issues — violence against women and girls, access to health care, systemic inequity. Through it all, we have had to continually push back against negative stereotypes that seek to diminish us.

We think back on our early years of raising the issue of domestic violence in the Jewish community only to be told it didn’t happen — or were countered with stories of “nice Jewish boys” and their “nagging” wives.

We are at once the loudmouthed, overly ambitious troublemakers and annoying, anxiety-producing mothers living only through the success of our children. We are the backbone of our community organizations and passed over as unqualified for the top seats. We are Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, yet are mocked as Sylvia Fine (“The Nanny”), Susie Green (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Mrs. Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”).

For those of us who work to end intimate partner violence, we know that at the root of violence and aggression is power and control. And nothing is more threatening than a powerful woman — not even a powerful man.

A powerful woman is somehow emasculating. Think of these early critiques of the possibility of Harris as Biden’s running mate. How dare she have successfully challenged him during the primary debates! Had a man made the same provocations, his being named as the VP candidate would have been lauded as a brilliant move.

Hillary Clinton faced this in 2016. Peter Beinart, in the October 2016 issue of The Atlantic, reported pins at the Republican National Convention that read “Trump 2016: finally someone with balls.” And, “Life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one.” Even a T-shirt reading “Hillary sucks but not like Monica.”

Of course, there are also the quieter, more subtle remarks — “she doesn’t look presidential” or “there’s just something about her I don’t like.” And don’t get us started on the fashion critiques, or the slut shaming that our young women share during our workshops on campus sexual assault.

We faced the wrath of online trolls just a few years ago when we were working on a program to prevent get abuse in the Jewish community and were trolled on our Facebook page by men stating the women “claiming” to be agunot — women seeking a Jewish divorce who are trapped in a marriage — were actually “golddiggers.”

So we know what’s coming. And more than the whispered “concerns” about likability that are festering and growing in the back rooms of political consultants’ offices is the hate that will spew on social media.

Already the platforms have allowed anti-Semitism to flow freely on their networks. Under the guise of “free speech” or even, as Mark Zuckerberg has used to defend the proliferation of Holocaust denial, the freedom to be misinformed, anti-Semitic groups are using social media to build their following.

Allowed to run free, misogynist campaigns are even more insidious on social media because of the inherent echo chamber. We live in a world driven by clickbait. Anti-Semitism, misogyny and hate are not only allowed to grow and become weaponized online, platforms intentionally push them to our newsfeeds. People click on the sensational. And platforms have advertising fees and revenue driven by clicks; their newsfeed algorithms are created to amplify incendiary content.

We expect better, especially from Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg, herself a Jewish woman, boldly exerted us to “ban bossy.” In fact, her site banbossy.com explains on its homepage: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.”

Sandberg understands. She knows how words are used to fortify the glass ceiling. Girls can’t grow up to be president (or vice president) — after all, they are bossy or whiny or petty or don’t smile enough. So then why isn’t she doing more to raise awareness on her own platform? If we can pledge to stop calling middle-school girls bossy, how about we do the same for vice presidential candidates?

Of course, we’re screaming into the void. Sandberg and others will stand silently behind their calls for “free speech” as female candidates are skewered. “Ban bossy” only applies when there isn’t advertising to be sold.

But we know. And we’ll be watching. And we’ll be calling out the misogyny and disinformation and the efforts to depress the vote.

After all, we’re strong, Jewish women. We know what it means to stand up and speak out.

Meredith Jacobs is CEO of Jewish Women International.
—JTA News and Features

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