Women and Politics

A blog from WCF about the state of women and politics

Sen. Barbara Boxer’s request to be called Senator, not Ma’am, draws unnecessary controversy

Though I almost hate to draw more attention to this story, I think the recent “controversy” over Sen. Barbara Boxer needs to be discussed. Boxer has been slammed for requesting to be referred to as “Senator” as opposed to “Ma’am” during a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing.

Now, Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh was just following military protocol when addressing Sen. Boxer as “Ma’am.” No biggie, Boxer simply asked that he use her official title, Senator. Had a male Senator made the same request (if he had been called “Sir,” let’s say), it wouldn’t be given a second thought – let alone become a controversy.

However, certain political figures, blogs, and news outlets have attacked Boxer’s request as “dressing down” the officer, having a big ego, being a “loose cannon,” despising the military, an embarrassment, and (putting it nicely) being uppity. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called it disrespectful and even went so far as to collect petition signatures reprimanding Boxer. Really? This is what we’re focusing our time on?

Many have come to the defense of Sen. Boxer, pointing out that her request was respectful and not out of line. And more importantly, Gen. Walsh told Sen. Boxer directly that he wasn’t offended by her request. Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein reminds us that the Senator was questioning someone testifying before her:

It’s irrelevant whether the general was wrong to call her ma’am, or whether Boxer was being polite. It’s not a Senator’s job to be polite when she questions witnesses, that is, unless politeness suits her purposes.

I think this serves as a reminder that, yes – sexism in politics is alive and well. Women face different and greater challenges while running for and serving in office simply because of their gender. They’re openly criticized for things that men never would be, and are forced to defend themselves against often undeserved assault. This can be a difficult hurdle for women to jump while entering or engaging in public life.

Whenever something like this happens, I think we need to ask: would people have the same reaction if she were a man? I think you’ll find the answer is overwhelmingly no.

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