How the word ‘whore’ shapes a judicial race
Gather ’round, won’t you, for a story about how the word “whore” came to play a central role in a north suburban McHenry County judicial race.
Former McHenry County Clerk Mary McClellan, a Republican, is running for judge in Illinois’ 22nd Circuit Court. She’s facing Republicans Justin Hansen of Crystal Lake and Donald Brewer of Algonquin in the March 17 primary.
In early October, anonymous commenters on the McHenry County Blog called her a string of choice words, including “whore.”
McClellan and her husband, Ed Gil, filed a petition in McHenry County Circuit Court seeking internet service providers and IP addresses of the blog’s anonymous commenters so they can possibly file a defamation lawsuit.
In a court filing Monday, Woodstock-based attorney Robert Hanlon, representing the McHenry County Blog, argued that “whore” may be distasteful, but is, in this case, accurate.
As the Northwest Herald reports, Hanlon’s filing begins thusly:
“Even if this court considers the reference to Mary McClellan as being a whore as something so offensive as it could be actionable, given that Mary McClellan had a son (name omitted) out of wedlock and one of the definitions of a ‘whore’ according to Merriam-Webster is a ‘promiscuous or immoral woman.’ Thus, under the innocent construction rule … the statement concerning Mary McClellan as being a whore is not actionable because it is substantially true, but admittedly distasteful.”
This prompted the Northwest Herald to craft a reader poll and attach it to the news story about Hanlon’s remarks. The poll read: “Based on an article in today’s edition, do you think it is defamatory to label a woman who had a child out of wedlock a ‘whore?’”
Readers could vote “yes,” “no” or “response not suitable to publish in a family publication.”
One perplexed reader emailed me screenshots of the reader poll Wednesday afternoon. (For the record, polling results were, at that time, 60% yes, 26% no and 14% response not suitable.)
I figured the screenshots were fake. I went to the newspaper’s site and checked for myself. There was the poll. I emailed Northwest Herald editor Jon Styf to ask if the paper was receiving any reader blowback for the poll, but he declined to answer my question. The poll was taken down a few minutes later.
So here we are. At the tail end of 2019, 100 years after women earned the right to vote, attaching the word “whore” to a woman seeking public office. And then parsing its dictionary definition. And then asking newspaper readers whether the word is still defamatory if, you know, the woman had a kid out of wedlock.
I called McClellan on Thursday morning to ask her how she feels about an offensive slur taking center stage in her race for judge.
“I would have to say, this shows why more women are needed on the bench,” she said.
It never occurred to her, she said, to be ashamed of having a child out of wedlock.
“I always considered the fact that I was a single mom and able to raise my son and find ways to get that done and still go to law school as an accomplishment,” she said, “not as a source of shame.”
McClellan’s son is 36. She said she attended John Marshall Law School at night, beginning when he was 14. She also said they are estranged now and he lives in a different state.
“I would prefer to see the qualifications of candidates and what they are going to do on the bench be the focus,” she said. “What is your history? Where have you practiced? What have you done? What makes you uniquely qualified to be on the bench? I think those are the imperative questions. Not whether I was a single mom.”
I trust the voters of McHenry County agree and will parse those qualifications and research those imperative questions before they head to the polls.
Meanwhile, I find it deeply demoralizing that a repugnant slur for a woman who is paid to have sex still pops up so frequently and fluidly in our political discourse. It’s a phrase that strips away a woman’s humanity, her accomplishments, her triumphs, her mistakes and reduces her to a sexual transaction.
To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. The reader poll was particularly disturbing because it appeared to hold up the word as some sort of neutral phrase for readers to politely weigh in on. Do we prefer couch or davenport these days? Jeans or dungarees? Whore or woman I don’t plan to vote for in March?
Like McClellan or don’t. Entrust her with a judge’s seat or don’t. But keep the misogyny out of it. It’s a stain on far too much of our political discourse as it is, and we ought to be trying to clean it up, not soak and spread it even farther into our moral fabric.
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Mary McClellan, right, a candidate for a circuit judge seat in McHenry County, is interviewed on Nov. 25 in Springfield.