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Is It Fair To Accuse Bernie Sanders Of Sexism?

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a concert he was hosting to raise support for his campaign at the Adler Theater on October 23, 2015 in Davenport, Iowa.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a concert he was hosting to raise support for his campaign at the Adler Theater on October 23, 2015 in Davenport, Iowa.

All week long, Bernie Sanders has been getting questions about sexism. The charges have been fueled by comments his campaign manager made, saying Sanders would consider Clinton for vice president.

These are not the sorts of questions the Vermont senator, who considers himself a feminist, and candidate for the Democratic nomination wants to be answering.

Should he even have to answer them? Is the accusation fair? Does it go too far?

Why Is He Getting The Questions?

Because of something Hillary Clinton said on the campaign trail. The day after her Benghazi Committee testimony, the former Secretary of State added a new line to her stump speech.

"I've been told to stop, and, I quote, 'shouting about gun violence.' Well, first of all, I'm not shouting," Clinton said to laughter at Democratic Party event in Washington, D.C. "It's just, when women talk, some people think we're shouting."

Clinton was referring to an exchange with Sanders during the first Democratic debate earlier this month. Here's the transcript from CNN (emphasis ours):

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country...


... supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do.

Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented. He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that. We're not going to let it continue.


COOPER: We're going to bring you all in on this. But, Senator Sanders, you have to give a response.

SANDERS: 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.

I believe that there is a consensus in this country. A consensus has said we need to strengthen and expand instant background checks, do away with this gun show loophole, that we have to address the issue of mental health, that we have to deal with the strawman purchasing issue, and that when we develop that consensus, we can finally, finally do something to address this issue.

Clinton's quote is obviously not exact. But Sanders was addressing her directly and did mention shouting.

Was Sanders Telling Clinton To Stop Shouting?

Well, he was addressing her directly, but this isn't the first time he's talked about shouting as it relates to arguments over gun control. In one of the many instances Sanders was asked out it this week, he told CNN's Jake Tapper:

"What the secretary is doing there is taking words and misapplying them. What I was saying is if we are going to make some progress on dealing with these horrific massacres that we are seeing is that people have got to start all over this country talking to each other."

To decide whether Sanders was telling Clinton to stop shouting, it is worth considering some further context. The idea that there should be less shouting in the conversation about gun violence is a recurring theme for Sanders, one that goes back months.

In another CNN interview back in August, Sanders said much the same thing he said in the debate:

"Coming from a rural state, which has almost no gun control, I think I can get beyond the noise and all of these arguments and people shouting at each other and come up with real constructive gun control legislation, which most significantly gets guns out of the hands of people who should not have them."

But there is a history of women, including Clinton, being criticized for their voices or the way they speak. Back in 2008, a guest on Fox News infamously said, "When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, 'Take off for the future.' And when Hillary Clinton speaks men hear, 'Take out the garbage.'"

This context likely affected the way Clinton and her supporters heard Sanders "shouting" remark.

"Bernie Sanders actually talks about people shouting about gun control, that's a line of his," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "So I don't necessarily think that what he was saying was particularly about her gender. But I think it's something she has certainly encountered."

Why Did It Take Two Weeks For This To Bubble Up?

Clinton didn't initially imply the "shouting" comment was sexist. In San Antonio, Texas, two days after the debate, Clinton first talked about that moment in the debate in a speech. However, she didn't imply that Sanders had told her to stop shouting, because she was a woman.

"Now, I've been told by some to quit talking about this, to quit shouting about this. And I'll tell you right now, I will not be silenced, and we will not be silenced. We must continue to speak out," Clinton said to cheers.

It was only a week later, that Clinton added the line about some people hearing shouting when a woman speaks her mind. The revised line got significantly more attention and led to a week of discussions about sexism.

Sanders' campaign didn't help itself when, in a Bloomberg article campaign manager Jeff Weaver was quoted as saying, half joking, that the campaign would consider Clinton for vice president.

"Look, she'd make a great vice president," he said. "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."

Ironically, Weaver was trying to defend Clinton from a question that asked if he thought, because of her shift in position on trade and the Keystone XL Pipeline if she was "a craven hypocrite and opportunist."

"A craven hypocrite?" Weaver replied. "That's a little bit harsh, don't you think?"

Nonetheless, the exchange raised the hackles of Clinton supporters and surrogates who fumed that Sanders was putting up with sexism in his campaign.

"I'm stunned that a man like Bernie Sanders, who has clearly committed his life to making the country a better place, would get sucked into this very dangerous rhetoric, which perpetuates sexist and misogynistic stereotypes," charged Christine Quinn to Politico. She's a Clinton supporter and former speaker of the New York City Council. "The candidate is supposed to set the tone, set the agenda. If Bernie Sanders does not want to be seen as someone who uses sexist language and perpetuates a dangerous sexist stereotype of strong women, then he should tell his people to stop. And if they don't stop, he should fire them."

This also comes at the same moment the Clinton campaign has made an increased push to appeal to female voters with a new ad campaign running in early states targeted squarely at women.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.