Democrat Claire McCaskill sparks controversy by saying women politicians should be 'self-effacing' to avoid 'B-word territory' and appeal to men

Scott Olson/Getty ImagesSen. Claire McCaskill poses for a selfie with Meladie Quarlles in St. Louis, Missouri this month.
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who lost re-election to a third term this month, says she wants to help a new generation of women learn how to get ahead in politics in part by being “self-effacing.”
  • But some of the senator’s supporters disagreed with her, arguing online that women shouldn’t be asked to conform with double standards, but instead be encouraged to break them.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who lost re-election to a third term this month, said that after leaving Washington she wants to help a new generation of women learn how to use humour and be “self-effacing” in order to get ahead in the male-dominated world of politics.

“I think I can really help other women understand that really difficult balance you have to have as a woman of being strong and opinionated, but very careful that you don’t go too far over the line so that you’re in the ‘B-word’ territory,” McCaskill said in a Friday interview with NPR.

She added, “That’s a really hard balance, and a lot of that has to do with being willing to be self-effacing and have a sense of humour.”

McCaskill acknowledged “it’s awful” that women are often held to different standards than their male counterparts, but justified her approach by arguing that she’s “just being realistic” about what it takes for women to succeed in politics.

The two-term lawmaker has been open about the sexual harassment she’s faced during her decades in politics, and again related the story of when the speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives suggested that, as a state senator in her early 20s, she perform sex acts to help build support for her proposed legislation.

McCaskill said she brushed off the harassment, in part by making fun of it.

“I got through it with a sense of humour and I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to have better jobs than these guys before this is over’ – and, as it turned out, I did,” she told NPR.

Some of McCaskill’s fans felt her remarks this week were out of sync with her record, and argued that women shouldn’t be told to conform to a double standard.

“All it does is erase their hard work if young women are forced to keep playing with one hand tied behind their back, backwards and in high heels,” Jess McIntosh, editor of Shareblue Media and a longtime Democratic strategist, tweeted in response to McCaskill’s comments. “The point of progress is to make it easier for the next gen, not to tell them to hamstring themselves because you had to.”

McIntosh added, “Also not for nothing, one of the things I LIKED about Claire McCaskill was that ‘self-effacing’ was not an adjective you could apply to her.”

Joan Walsh, a writer for the liberal Nation Magazine tweeted that she was “shocked” by McCaskill’s comments.

“I really thought differently about @clairecmc and looked forward to her unvarnished honesty in the future!” she wrote.

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