Helen McCaffrey

is the director of Women's Watch Inc., a nonprofit women's advocacy group based in Cape May

I cannot predict who will win the presidential campaign, but I already know who will lose big: all women.

I realized this when I saw a 20-something male student who attends a class in the community college where I teach, wearing a T-shirt that read, "Sarah Palin is a C-." He wore it in public, in broad daylight, and without shame or even consciousness of what he was doing.

I took the time to advise him of the "error of his ways" and informed him of the consequences if he wore it to my class.

This encounter shook me right down to my socks.

Most of my adult life has been spent working for civil rights for all Americans, as a lawyer defending constitutional rights and now as a college teacher and director of a nonprofit advocating for the rights of women.

Not since I told myself I could lose weight on the pizza and cheesecake diet have I been so self-deluded. This election cycle has been like stepping on the scale.

It was the encounter with the young man that woke me up, but there were signs all along the campaign trail. First, with the candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who won 18 million popular votes from the people of the United States and was ridiculed, marginalized, and put in her place when she wasn't even offered the vice presidency slot.

But the really big attack on women occurred when John McCain selected only the second woman in history to be on a major-party ticket. He chose a governor of a state critical to our energy crisis. She is a very popular governor with an 80-percent approval rate. She was elected on her own merit without previous political ties. She is her own political creation, not the wife, daughter, sister or mistress of a politician.

I thought Americans would be proud of her nomination, whether we agreed or disagreed with her on the issues. Was I in for a shock.

The sexism that I believed had been eradicated was lurking, like some creature from the black lagoon, just below the surface. Suddenly it erupted and in some unexpected places.

Instead of engaging Palin on the issues, critics attacked attributes that are specifically female. It is Hillary's pantsuit drama to the power of 10. Palin's hair, her voice, her motherhood, and her personal hygiene were substituted for substance. That's when it was nice.

The hatred escalated to performers advocating Palin be "gang raped," to suggestions that her husband had had sex with their young daughters, and reports that her Down syndrome child really was that of her teenage daughter. One columnist even called for her to submit to DNA testing to prove her virtue. Smells a little like Salem to me. I was present at an Obama rally at which the mention of Palin's name drew shouts of "stone her."

"Stone her"? How biblical.

All this is at a time when women are regularly being raped as they try to cross the border into the United States; bloody, broken women haunt the emergency rooms of hospitals; and abuse and disrespect for women and girls is rising faster than bank bailouts. That is the atmosphere in which people, including women, choose to attempt to destroy a woman who is a legitimate political leader.

Agreement on issues is not required, but Palin merits respect.

It is dismaying that misogyny and sexism are so excessively marbleized into our daily interactions that some of us cannot even recognize their existence when confronted with it or when staring at it directly in the mirror.

It is my fervent hope that those who purport to be intellectuals begin to engage in argument and not resort to their baser selves or the easy exercise of personal and biology-based attacks.

Mockery and vilification of women such as Palin should become just as taboo as race-based slams. Until then, women are the real losers.

Email Helen McCaffrey at hmccaffrey@hotmail.com.