It was another instance of that most common of events: a woman, diminished.
Earlier this week, Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate, was asked about a story that she’s mentioned often on the campaign trail: In 1971, when she was 22 years old and completing her first year of teaching, she lost her job once it became clear that she was visibly pregnant. It was, she tweeted, “an experience millions of women will recognize.”
But over the past few days, conservative news sites and mainstream outlets either have sought to directly refute Warren’s account or have disputed it in such a way that it seems as if there’s some reason to doubt that a school in the early 1970s would fire a pregnant woman. But that kind of discrimination continues today. (As The New York Times documented earlier this year, American companies still “systematically sideline” pregnant women by, for instance, passing them over for promotions.)
Warren’s story, however, fits into a much larger pattern, one that will indeed be familiar to many women: It’s the tradition of sexism in the guise of scrutiny.
Consider how, this same week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, another Democratic presidential hopeful, was pulled into a case at the global law firm DLA Piper, where a junior partner alleges that one of the company’s higher-ups sexually assaulted her four times. Harris’ only connection to the firm is that her husband is one of its hundreds of partners.
Yet that hasn’t prevented the junior partner’s lawyer from trying to use Harris’ star power to bring attention to a case not meaningfully related to the senator. (In response, a statement from Harris’ communications director underscores that the senator “has been and continues to be a staunch advocate for survivors and believes all people must be guaranteed their day in court.”)
Recall, too, the uneven treatment of presidential candidates’ health. During the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton’s bout of pneumonia — which forced her to depart early from a September 11 memorial service — became a lightning rod for breathless investigation: Pundits questioned her physical fitness for office, Donald Trump outright mocked her, and even some on the left appeared to be trafficking in medical conspiracy theories.
By contrast, in the wake of the revelation last week that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont suffered a heart attack, that gendered line of questioning has been noticeably absent from political chatter. Sanders, instead, has received the kid-gloves treatment.
Each of these examples is, in its own way, a distillation of age-old policing mechanisms and double standards. Each also shines a light on the inveterate sexism — women as unreliable narrators, women as answerable for their husbands’ professional lives, women as weak — that still, today, takes up so much space in the narrative.
Or to use Warren’s own words, “I don’t know what else you’d call it.”