How the word ‘whore’ shapes a ju­di­cial race

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - Heidi Stevens [email protected]­bune.com Twit­ter @hei­dis­tevens13

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.

Join the Heidi Stevens Bal­anc­ing Act Face­book group, where she con­tin­ues the con­ver­sa­tion around her col­umns and hosts oc­ca­sional live chats.

JUSTIN L. FOWLER/THE STATE JOUR­NAL-REG­IS­TER

Mary McClel­lan, right, a can­di­date for a cir­cuit judge seat in McHenry County, is in­ter­viewed on Nov. 25 in Spring­field.

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