Are accusations that Bernie Sanders is sexist fair?

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: Recent accusations that Bernie Sanders is sexist don't make sense in context of what we know about him. Are they fair?
  • She says even feminist men must be aware of and avoid even subtle assertions of bias, and to acknowledge when one seems to slip in

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Suddenly, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is being called sexist.

This is simultaneously absurd and 100% legitimate. To appreciate that paradoxical statement is to understand how sexism -- and racism and homophobia and other form of discrimination -- play out in society today.
Sally Kohn
Sanders is facing these accusations primarily because of two incidents. First, at the Democratic debate hosted by CNN, after his opponent Hillary Clinton took a strong stand for common sense gun control, Sanders said:
    "As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing."
    Was Sanders suggestion that Clinton was shouting (besides being ironic because Sanders doesn't seem to have a low setting on his volume control) a sexist reference to a stereotypes that women who assert themselves are "shrill"? The Clinton campaign certainly seems to think so. Secretary Clinton recently added a new line to her usual stump speech: "I've been told to stop, and, I quote, 'shouting about gun violence.' Well, first of all, I'm not shouting. It's just, when women talk, some people think we're shouting."
    Want to know what a bind women are in? Review the social science studies. You can find ones that say, on the one hand, women undermine themselves in professional settings by not speaking loudly enough. But don't speak too loudly and in a high pitch because studies say lower-pitched voices in women are associated with leadership. But let's not forget: High pitched voices are "more attractive" in women. Ugh. The brilliant (and lilting) Ann Friedman once wrote an essay about the mess of fixation on women's voices; it's a good read.
    Bernie Sanders responds to Clinton's sexism claim
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    Ah, but what did Sanders mean by his statement? Was he being intentionally sexist? And here's where we need to all learn to hold two seemingly contradictory possibilities in our minds at the same time -- because I can all but guarantee Sanders didn't mean to be sexist. He said as much to CNN's Jake Tapper, and Sanders had previously referred more generically to "shouting" not being a solution for gun violence.
    Still, consider: It's also possible his statement had a sexist impact, that is, it played into the culture's tendency to scrutinize and judge the way women express themselves, holding women to a higher standard than men and often "mansplaining" women's "problems" back to them.
    Sexism charges came up again when Sanders' campaign director said, when asked if they would consider Hillary Clinton for vice president: "Look, she'd make a great vice president. We're willing to give her more credit than Obama did. We're willing to consider her for vice president. We'll give her serious consideration. We'll even interview her."
    Sanders' campaign manager was joking. But he was also echoing a long history in which women have been considered inherently less qualified for employment, let alone leadership. Did he intend this? No -- or at least I hope not. But as legal scholar Eva Paterson and others have wisely argued, bias can exist without intent. And biased impacts can exist without intent. And isn't our goal as a just society to reduce the impact of discrimination, not just the intent?
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    If you read both Sanders' and his campaign manager's statements and shrug, and then read this essay and think I'm being too hard on them, that's understandable. But here's the thing: Society has been statistically, habitually too hard on women for centuries. That's what sexism is, and we have plenty of data and anecdotes to prove it.
    And so being a good feminist man, as Sanders considers himself, means more than just avoiding overt acts of sexism. It means looking out for and hopefully avoiding even the most subtle assertions or reinforcements of bias. Is that asking a lot of men? Yes, it is. But given how sexism and implicit gender bias has benefited men for centuries and continues to benefit them in innumerable ways, making men work a bit harder here isn't asking too much.
    That doesn't mean Sanders or his campaign manager have to say they were intentionally being sexist if they weren't. But learning a phrase like, "That wasn't my intent, but I can see how that played into stereotypes that hurt women and I apologize for that" -- would go a long, long way to making it better.