Monday, May 19, 2008

An Unfortunate Narrative

Like every other woman, I face sexism in some form, every day, in both my public and private lives. Whether it manifests in cat calls or unwarranted comments from strangers about my appearance; sexual harassment or, on a good day, mere discrimination in the workplace; constant comfirmation from all mainstream media that my weight, age, and overall appearance dictate my worth; lower salary and less career mobility than men doing the same work; automatic assumptions that I am stupid and/or incapable; denial of credit for my accomplishments; or in other ways that I can continue to enumerate, ad nauseum, I face sexism constantly. And if you are a woman, you do, too.

I teach literature from a feminist perspective. I am quite familiar with feminist theory. I act politically on behalf of women's rights and for gender equality both locally and globally.

I've been infuriated to sit on a few hiring committees who have passed over the most qualified and informed candidates (because they haven't been deemed "assertive enough") for less qualified and informed but louder, more "authoritative" male candidates.

I was raised by a single mother who never made a penny more than 18K/year in her working life. Her two brothers went to college. She was not given that option.

In short, you can bet your last dollar that I care about gender equality. You can also bet that I understand that my generation has fared a lot better than the last.

I am also aware that the vast majority of my successes and failures in life have not been the result of gender inequality. That I've been denied jobs for which I was less qualified than others is not a function of sexism. That I've alienated others by acting badly is not a result of sexism. That I must take responsibility for my own actions is not a result of sexism. That I consider myself an individual human being and expect others to do the same is not a function of sexism. These levels of awareness defy sexism.

For this reason, I am extremely disappointed by the narrative emerging about gender and the Clinton campaign. Many fail to recognize that HRC's campaign is not about women. Her campaign is about Hillary Rodham Clinton. And if we lived in a equitable society, that would be obvious to everyone. All those, male and female, who fail to understand this simple point are working at cross purposes with the very notion of gender equality. Basing attitudes about an entire group of people on the successes and failures or strengths and weaknesses of one person is the very definition of stereotyping, not its antidote.

The following segments from the New York Times article "Gender Issue Lives on as Clinton's Hopes Dim" spin the narratives that bother me the most:
Along with the usual post-mortems about strategy, message and money, Mrs. Clinton’s all-but-certain defeat brings with it a reckoning about what her run represents for women: a historic if incomplete triumph or a depressing reminder of why few pursue high office in the first place.
This false dilemma is galling, as is the assumption that follows: that Clinton's campaign has been unsuccesful simply because of her sex. Has Clinton failed to draw the male vote in larger numbers than any other runner-up in a political primary? No. Are opinion polls demonstrating that a significant number of voters are opposed to voting for a woman? No. Has the campaign strategy of any of Clinton's opponents been to suggest that the nation is not ready for a woman as president or that a woman wouldn't have "a broad enough coalition" on which to base a campaign? No.

“Women felt this was their time, and this has been stolen from them,” said Marilu Sochor, 48, a real estate agent in Columbus, Ohio, and a Clinton supporter. “Sexism has played a really big role in the race.”
Women felt this was their time? For what? Forget that the very phrasing is the same as the Victorian euphemism for menstruation. The idea that a woman in the Oval Office means other than symbolic progress for women is at best erroneous and at worst dangerous, in the same ways as assuming that any racial minority in power will see to the needs of all racial minorities. What, besides taking a pro-choice stance, has Clinton done to protect women from gender inequality? Especially women living in poverty. She promoted welfare reform, decreasing the availability of aid to mothers. In the face of overwhelming evidence rendering the rationale for war with Iraq deeply flawed (to state it nicely), Clinton supported that war. Our economy is drained as a result, and since women are still less educated, make less money than men, and are more likely to be raising children alone, women are in a more precarious position because of her actions. The war has also made conditions for women in Iraq far worse than they were under Saddam Hussein. Clinton has repeatedly supported exploitative trade agreements that grind under female workers in developing nations and outsource American jobs. Clinton seems to forget when she is asked about her stance on affirmative action that white women in her own age group have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, implying (appealing to a commonly held racist belief) that it aids only racial minorities. And Marilu Sochor, where is the evidence that "sexism has played a really big role in the race"? It's been "stolen" from women? In what other presidential campaign have voters been accused of theft? In what other campaign has the actual leader in delegates and popular votes been accused of stealing the nomination?

While the article does confront some of these questions, it goes on to quote another less than authoritative source on women's "progress":
“She’s raised this whole woman candidate thing to a whole different level than when I ran,” said Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter and the first woman to be the vice-presidential nominee of a major party, contrasting her own brief stint as a running mate in 1984 with Mrs. Clinton’s 17-month-and-counting slog.
Ferraro's language exemplifies the sloppy thinking of those who believe that voting for a woman on the basis of her sex is a shared sisterly duty. Only three words are operative here--woman, candidate, and level. So Clinton's anatomy, her bid for the presidency, and her level of success in that pursuit are the only issues worth consideration? Not her policies or suitability to meet the needs of the U.S. populace in the midst of two wars, environmental disaster, and economic meltdown?

Apparently the former is true for many of Clinton's supporters. The comments of this one were the impetus for this entry:

Cynthia Ruccia, 55, a sales director for Mary Kay cosmetics in Columbus, Ohio, is organizing a group, Clinton Supporters Count Too, of mostly women in swing states who plan to campaign against Mr. Obama in November. “We, the most loyal constituency, are being told to sit down, shut up and get to the back of the bus,” she said.
First, Cynthia Ruccia, those who support the losing candidate have always been expected to accept their candidate's defeat, and they always will be expected to do so. Though it's not clearly stated, I assume that Clinton Supporters Count Too [sic] prefer McCain? Yet they consider themselves the most loyal constituency, I assume, of the Democratic Party?

A word of advice to you, Cynthia Ruccia, and to Clinton Supporters Count Too [sic]: Unlike Barack Obama, John McCain and the Republican Party will waste no time in telling you to "sit down, shut up and get to the back of the bus." If you don't, they'll just throw you under it. Please consider this advice carefully before you fling the rest of us down there with you.


dsb said...

Bravo! That NYT article left me seething, too. The bark eaters are an infuriating lot--their thinking is so sloppy because thinking isn't their aim. They want what they want and that's really all that matters (even if what they want isn't what they think it is).

gazzed said...

I would rather have the Republicans throw me under the bus , not a party I have spent many years campigning for, donating money, working the polls, making phone call, giving freely of my spare time, who I feel have just tuned some people out and many of us do not appreciate it, I will be changing my party and so are many of friends and family so we will voting differently this Nov., I feel just hold your nose and vote for McCain.

A.F. said...

dsb: I co-sign!

gazzed: I and most people I know have often felt betrayed by the Democratic Party, especially because of its tuning out of the concerns of poor and working-class Americans. How do you and your family and friends feel tuned out right now? Let's talk.

Charlotte said...

What you said! I am in awe of this post, AF. I am simply dumbfounded by so many of the women of my generation who are falling in lockstep with Ferraro and Clinton's "sexism" whining.
It's time to stop looking to the crones of the Women's Movement for's time to break that paradigm.

dsb said...

gazzed: who's been thrown under the bus? I missed that part.

Anonymous said...

I think what angers so many Clinton supporters is not just the arrogance of many Obama fans, but the false accusations against her and her husband that must always accompany the adoration of him. Also, the media's attack campaign against her from the beginning has been blatantly sexist and that cannot be denied.

But I have a problem with this line early on: "...unwarranted comments from strangers about my appearance..."

There's nothing sexist about compliments and men get them too from women, believe me. That's a little thin-skinned.

A.F. said...

Charlotte: Thank you, I'm honored. I'm dubfounded, too, especially the more I read about Clinton Supporters Too. I think they're the new wannabe Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

anonymous: I've heard and objected to sexist comments of many in the media about Clinton since 1992. But how is the Democratic Party involved? What are the false accusations against the Clintons that must accompany support for Obama? Who said I was talking about compliments?

When asked (on FOX News) how the Obama campaign and/or the Democratic Party had treated Clinton or her supporters in a sexist manner, Cynthia Ruccia apparently answered that anchors at MSNBC had made sexist comments about Clinton. Sure they have. I'm missing the logic, though. Media = Obama = Democratic Party?

dsb said...


1) Which accusations against Hillary and her husband are false?

2) Since I'm not anonymous you can follow my name on this comment to my blog and find many instances where I've made all kinds of highly negative claims about Hillary, but none of them have anything to do with her plumbing. In fact, I haven't come across any liberal blogs that have indulged in that nonsense (hardly an exhaustive search, but that's my take). I mostly respond directly to Hillary's campaign tactics and positions on issues and the sometimes strange things that she says. You will also find several instances when I've pointed to sexist coverage of Hillary, most glaringly (for a while, anyway) on MSNBC. So when you say such sexist coverage cannot be denied, I concur. And I haven't seen Obama supporters denying it--they may point to problems with coverage of Obama, but they're not denying the equivalent isn't happening to Hillary as well. Certainly A.F. hasn't denied that in this post or elsewhere.

3) "There's nothing sexist about compliments and men get them too from women, believe me. That's a little thin-skinned."

I think you're willfully misreading A.F. point here. She's not talking about innocent "compliments" and you know it.

Anonymous said...

Great post.
gazzed:please don't change parties and vote for McCain. By doing so, you're tuning yourself out. You've spent so much time and given so much to the Democratic Party - you shouldn't throw all that hard work away. To support not only means to advocate for but also to uphold. Please continue to support Senator Clinton by voting Democrat in November (regardless of nominee) and uphold all that she has fought for and contributed to this Party. Thanks.