"I think people are outraged by not only Matt Lauer's moderation but the sexism that was contained in that moderation," the leader of a women's advocacy group tells PEOPLE

By Tierney McAfee
Updated September 09, 2016 05:45 PM
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Heidi Gutman/NBC News/Getty

A national women’s advocacy group is calling for more female moderators for the upcoming 2016 presidential debates after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a lineup of moderators that includes only one woman.

More than 42,000 members of the group, UltraViolet, have signed a petition urging the commission to announce more female anchors to moderate the three debates between major-party nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the first of which takes place on Sept. 26.

UltraViolet’s petition notes that while there are many women for the commission to choose from – including Gwen Ifill, Rachel Maddow, Christiane Amanpour and Tamron Hall – the only woman in the lineup to question the presidential candidates is Martha Raddatz, who will serve alongside co-host Anderson Cooper.

But Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, tells PEOPLE it’s more important than ever that female moderators be included in the presidential debates.

“When you have one of the most openly and unabashedly sexist candidates in recent history running for president,” she says of Trump, “and issues involving women and sexism have been such a huge part of the narrative around this election, doesn’t it stand to reason that a woman should be there to challenge and ask about those questions?”

Chaudhary points to Matt Lauer‘s moderation of the NBC News “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on Wednesday night – which was widely panned as sexist and unbalanced – as a prime example of the troubling role sexism plays in the media and in the election.

“Let’s just take the contrast between how Hillary Clinton was handled and how Donald Trump was handled,” Chaudhary says. “Donald Trump said a number of not just shocking things but outright lies. Everything from his support for the Iraq war – which, he likes to say he didn’t support the Iraq war where he clearly did – to this whole really stunning exchange around career intelligence professionals who gave him an intelligence briefing – and he wants us to believe that he was able to divine that they don’t agree with President Obama.”

“He was not challenged for that,” Chaudhary continues. “He was allowed to babble on, it was a whole lot of nonsense or lies or just really offensive rhetoric … and he was never stepped on, he was never challenged. This is the ‘Commander-in-Chief Forum’ and for him not to be challenged at all on any of that stuff is frankly frightening.”

Hillary Clinton on Sexism in Media

By contrast, Lauer “spent fully a third” of Clinton’s time hammering her on “this email issue which has been litigated ad nauseam,” Chaudhary says. “And then when she starts to talk about issues that voters are quite concerned about – for example, what is her plan to deal with ISIS? – it’s, ‘be quick, interrupt her, tell her to hurry up.’ That is sexist. The whole dynamic of men interrupting women and stepping on women when they’re speaking in meetings, it’s a real cultural phenomenon and it was kind of stunning to see it play out on national television, when we’re talking about one of the most accomplished women in history.”

Chaudhary isn’t the only one who’s criticized Lauer for interrupting Clinton and treating the two candidates differently.

Political commentator Norman Ornstein wrote in a Twitter message, “Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answers repeatedly to move on. Not once for Trump.” He added, “Tough to be a woman running for president.”

Neera Tanden, president of the the public policy research group Center for American Progress, tweeted:

And Jon Favreau, the former speechwriter for President Obama, tweeted:

Chaudhary believes including more female moderators in the presidential debates would go a long way toward ensuring that the events are handled fairly. Case and point: the 2012 debates.

“There was a real difference in the debates that Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley were part of and those the other moderators led,” she says, adding that Raddatz and Crowley “were much more willing to hold the candidates accountable, they were much more willing to go deep on issues. Candy Crowley asked about a range of issues that impact women which led to the now infamous “binders full of women” gaffe, which was a very telling moment about how Mitt Romney thinks about women and women in the workplace. We’ve already seen how [having female debate moderators] makes a difference.”

Chaudhary adds that Raddatz’s inclusion as a co-moderator, rather than a solo moderator, in this year’s debates is “insulting to women everywhere.”

It sends the message that “women can be a part of the debate moderators so long as they are co-moderating with men. This year, in the year 2016, where we have the first major-party female nominee, a woman cannot be trusted to moderate a debate on her own,” she laments.

Chaudhary says she’s hopeful UltraViolet will succeed in its mission to have more female moderators included in the debates.

“I think people are outraged by not only Matt Lauer’s moderation but the sexism that was contained in that moderation, and I think that that is creating a moment where people are really thinking about what is going to happen in these debates and what do we need as voters?” she says. “We need to have candidates speak to issues that matter to us, we need to have candidates held accountable when they lie, and we need to make sure that were hearing from both of the candidates about what they’re going to do to make all of our lives better.”