Staff Columnist

First-in-the-nation Iowa can change the narrative

Newly elected members of Congress, from left, Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., and Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, gather for a class photo at the Capitol in November 2018. (Melina Mara/Washington Post/TNS)
Newly elected members of Congress, from left, Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., and Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, gather for a class photo at the Capitol in November 2018. (Melina Mara/Washington Post/TNS)
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To this day, if you type U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s name into Google, the top search suggestion is to find information on her husband.

These suggestions, or automatic predictions, have been a full feature of Google since 2008. They are based largely on popularity. All suggestions stem from real search activity on the site, and they can change based on location. In other words, in order for a search for Finkenauer’s husband to become the top suggestion, it has to be a popular search term locally.

Finkenauer, elected last fall as one of the youngest women ever sent to Congress, isn’t married. And while searches for her significant other have waned — during the campaign “Abby Finkenauer boyfriend” was the second search suggestion, but it has dropped from the current list — they’ve not stopped. And fascination with the personal lives of female politicians isn’t limited to the young congresswoman from Iowa.

Only a few days after U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris officially launched her presidential bid, the internet buzzed with allegations about her private life. Specifically, the misogynistic allegations were that she had “slept her way to the top” because she dated the former mayor of San Francisco more than 20 years ago. Rush Limbaugh — remember him? — compared Harris to Stormy Daniels, the adult actress paid hush money by Donald Trump to keep quiet about their affair.

Married female politicians aren’t necessarily immune. One of the first news reports about U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential run focused on her “likability.” Even married and not facing some manfactured sex scandal, it seems Warren may be too “shrill” and “aloof” to win the nomination.

There’s politics as usual, and there’s politics as usual for women. The year doesn’t really seem to matter.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, media coverage of female politicians continues to rely on sexist language, and tends to focus more on family roles, appearance and perceived “women’s political issues.”

We subject female candidates to questions rarely posed to their male counterparts, such as work-life balance. Unlike male candidates, women are more likely to be asked to smile for photos and at public appearances.

Historically, writers at the Review say, women are placed into one of four categories: seductress, mother, pet or battle-ax. And even as blatant sexist language becomes less used, the more subtle speech used to describe male and female candidates continues to push public perception.

According to research by the Review, when female candidates are described with words typically used to describe male candidates — like “ambitious” or “assertive” — the female candidate is viewed as “almost 10 percent more qualified and 7 percent more competent than a woman described with feminine adjectives” such as “compassionate” or “loyal.”

The group also asked those participating in their research to identify the gender of a politician based on what was written about that politician.

“The findings were striking,” they noted. “Nearly 80 percent of respondents assumed the candidate they read about was male — a strong suggestion that a political profession might still be assumed to be a ‘man’s job.’ ”

Nowhere are these differences more apparent than when we discuss the private relationships of politicians and candidates.

When we talk about the transgressions of Trump, Bill Clinton, Bill Dix or Anthony Weiner, for instance, we talk about how they abused power. For women, the conversation circles around why they do or don’t deserve to have power — from the boardroom to the halls of Congress.

We saw it when the accomplishments of Warren were diminished because she legitimately claimed Native American blood. It was on full display in the last election cycle with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “grandma” television ad. We are watching it play out now as Harris’ hard-won personal accomplishments are set aside. It’s archived in Google whenever we search for Finkenauer.

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Iowans already are stepping up for local elections later this year, and the parade of 2020 presidential candidates is well underway. Maybe it still is too much to ask for all Americans to create a truly level playing field, but here in Iowa, we have an obligation to do better.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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