Presidential Debate 2012: Why Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz Do Not Mark the End of Sexism


On the heels of a job well done by vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz, feminists have been abuzz about Candy Crowley taking the stage on Tuesday night, the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in twenty years. Though Crowley's participation in tonight's debate, much like the uptick in women's representation in positions of political leadership, is an excellent step forward, it runs the risk of assuring people that sexism does not still play a deleterious role in our society.

Crowley, a chief political correspondent at CNN, has undoubtedly faced moments of gender discrimination in her long career in the male-dominated field of journalism and reporting. This discrimination is evidenced in part by a short stint of name-changing which occurred while she worked at NBC, in anticipation that the world could not take a female reporter seriously, much less one named Candy. Her presence at the debate tonight, sparked by a petition for female moderators that garnered over 100,000 signatures, has been rightly celebrated as a coup by many feminists.

Given a side mention in the petition itself was that the Commission on Presidential Debates, which selects moderators, includes only three women out of 17 total members. What the petition failed to mention is that since its establishment in 1987, the Executive Director of the Commission has been a woman: Janet Brown. With a female Executive Director for 25 years, it seems misplaced to charge the Commission with being sexist in its moderator choices.

While there are a myriad of factors that could prevent the appointment of a female moderator despite (or even in spite of) having a female Executive Director, if we stop blaming the Commission itself for being sexist for a moment, we can more clearly see that it is society that is still sexist. The Commission, as a unit within our society, is only mirroring that fact. While the Commission is not entirely free from blame, it's important to remember that it is so often the manifestation of a patriarchal society that causes this sort of gender inequality, rather than the fault of an independently sexist institution.

In this light, Crowley and Raddatz's participation in moderating debates this year runs the risk of reassuring those who would like to believe it that the feminist fight is no longer worth fighting. "Look! We have our first female moderator in 20 years! And a female CEO at Yahoo! Sexism is dead!" Lately, the progressive quality of society has seemed to be measured on the success of individual women. Remember, for instance, all the talk about Marissa Mayer when she was named Yahoo's new CEO, and the continued conversation after she distanced herself from the label of feminism. 

Obama's presidency itself has been subject to the same sort of discussion of the death of racism, a topic beautifully explicated and discussed in the book Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

What needs to be learned here is that the success of the individual in no way means success for all or the subsequent death of racism, sexism, and so on.  Yet it seems that every time we have a success like this, we laud it as the death of sexism. And every time, we're wrong.

Crowley's presence is a coup, but so is the work of the Commission's executive director Janet Brown. But neither of these women's success marks the end of sexism and patriarchy in our society. There is still a dearth of women in office. Women are still making cents on every dollar a man makes. The control we have over our bodies and our own health is still under fire. The list could go on.

Having Crowley at the desk tonight is merely a step forward in an endeavor which will take a marathon. We would do well to remember the struggle that still must be wrought even while we applaud Candy Crowley during her introduction tonight.