Readers Rail at 'Sexist' Story in Arizona Capitol Times

Democratic candidates Athena Salman, Juan Mendez, and Isela Blanc from Legislative District 26.EXPAND
Democratic candidates Athena Salman, Juan Mendez, and Isela Blanc from Legislative District 26.
Courtesy of Athena Salman

Some readers of the Arizona Capitol Times are calling a recent article about the Democratic primary race (subscription required) in Tempe's Legislative District 26 sexist, if not outright misogynistic, for the way it repeatedly refers to the one of the candidates as the girlfriend of one of the other candidates.

The story, by reporter Hank Stephenson, is about three pro-clean elections candidates for the state Legislature who have joined forces to campaign together as a political slate: Representative Juan Mendez, who is now running for the Senate; and community leaders Athena Salman and Isela Blanc, who are running for the House.

And while the gist of the article is that Mendez's decision to team up with the two political newcomers challenging his fellow Democrat in the house, incumbent Celeste Plumlee, is "a rare strategy" that "turned heads in the district and at the Capitol," the language of the piece did quite a bit of head-turning in its own right.

Beginning with the headline — "Lawmaker and girlfriend leave Plumlee to fend for herself in Tempe" — Salman is consistently referred to as Mendez's girlfriend, a fact she and others see as a blatant example of "gender discrimination."

"My first reaction after reading this was, 'Oh man, we're still dealing with this?'" Salman says, adding that the fact that she and Mendez are dating "isn't relevant" to the campaign, and that she was insulted by what she sees as an insinuation that their relationship was a factor in her decision to run for office.

"This article is part of this bigger picture of how women are portrayed in politics," and at its most basic level is problematic in how it frames the situation: "Here's a man who decided that he would run with these two women, leaving this other woman to fend for herself," she says. "It comes off as though the election is happening to us, [while in reality] there are three women running and we are all passionate and well qualified."

Salman is far from alone in her criticism of the Capitol Times story.

"It's been such an uphill battle for women to even get recognized in politics, so when they're referenced by their connection to men rather than their own achievement, it reinforces the idea that women don't belong in politics," says Evan Clark, a communications strategist for the political consulting group Spectrum Experience, which is working with Salman.

"It would be like calling Hillary Clinton the wife of former President Bill Clinton every time she was introduced in an article, rather than as Secretary of State,” he adds. "I could never imagine a story written the other way around — that's the absurdity of this."

The story was also picked up by the website Democratic Diva, which wrote a humorous yet scathing blog post about it: "Really, Capitol Times? Reducing Athena Salman's accomplishments to being about who she's dating and not how she's qualified to run for office?

“I can't even figure out why this is news. Primaries are a part of the process, and I can't imagine Representative Celeste Plumlee is running scared because she was left to 'fend' for herself. She is going to run a good campaign because that was what she was trained to do, and she had a successful first year in the legislature on which to run.

"As for Athena, since the Cap Times glossed over Athena's accomplishments, let's get a few things straight. Athena is qualified to run for office because of her experience in building coalitions, her activism and strategy in registering under-represented voters, and her work in student government, NOT because she's dating a lawmaker."

Reached for comment, Stephenson of the Capitol Times says he's sympathetic to the criticism and "willing to hear [Salman] out on this stuff," but he thinks the negative reaction is a little off base because the story was about Mendez's unusual strategy, not the other candidates in the field.

Asked why she was referred to as Mendez's girlfriend, Stephenson said, "It was the novelty of the fact that they're dating — that's why I included it in there, [but] the story wasn't necessarily about that."

What's more, Stephenson says, it seems as though most complaints he's getting about the story revolve around the headline — something he doesn't control.

Salman agrees that the headline is problematic, but says what upsets her the most is how this article plays into negative stereotypes of female politicians and could impact young girls and the next generation of female politicians. (It is perhaps worth noting that the nine-member Capitol Times news team consists of four male editors, four male reporters, and one female reporter.) 

"Girls are well aware that politics is a man's world," Salman says, citing a 2014 report by the Girl Scouts Research Institute. The report found that 74 percent of girls agree that if they went into politics, they'd have to work harder than their male colleagues, and that only 32 percent of girls think women are encouraged by society to pursue a political career. 

Salman, Mendez, and Blanc at a recent campaign event.EXPAND
Salman, Mendez, and Blanc at a recent campaign event.
Courtesy of Athena Salman

"For as long as I can remember, the contributions of women have been demeaned because of their gender," writes Amneris Cocco, Salman's mother, in a letter to the editor published online Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol Times.

"I am shocked and appalled to see this publication diminish my daughter to her relationship status, the same woman who received the 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Diversity Award in Tempe for her leadership in the community," she continues.

"For decades, we have worked hard to ensure that the world is full of positive female role models for our daughters to follow," and so "regardless of whom you support, your ideology or your party, to see a news organization reduce my daughter and all her accomplishments to a relationship status sets all women back."

**Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Clark was doing pro bono work for Salman, but she is paying him for his consulting services.

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