Gender More Of A Hurdle Than Race In American Politics
by Jeff Dinelli
Looking ahead to February 5th's Super-Duper-Tsunami-Mega-Fat Tuesday, we should be able to look back and learn a thing or two from what's happened so far. One of those revelations is it's clear that America is ready, willing and able to elect its first African-American president. It's a wonderful development and fills all of us with an unprecedented optimism for this country's enlightenment and its future.
At the same time, however, it's abundantly evident that this same country is not necessarily ready to support the candidacy of a strong woman looking to lead from the Oval Office. The most discouraging aspect of this uncomfortable truth is the right wing hasn't floated this theme; indeed, it hasn't even had a chance to assign its formidable slime machine towards injecting some subtle sexism into the 2008 campaign. No, it's the media, the lefty netroots and even members of the Democratic Party that have led the runaway train of shoddy treatment handed to Senator Hillary Clinton.
The wonderful Chicago Tribune writer Jessica Reaves picks up on the truly, unbelievably unfair media coverage of the first viable female candidate in our country's history:
From Day 1 of this seemingly endless election cycle, it has been clear that the media don't have any idea how to handle Clinton. She was first lady for eight years, so it's not as if we haven't seen her before. It's just that we've never seen her like this: a candidate on her own terms, the equal of any man, with a real shot at the presidency.
And so we did what we've always done to women who overstep their bounds: We picked her apart, piece by piece, ignoring the substance and pouncing on the superficial. We sniped about her hair, her laugh, her pantsuits, her voice (which Chris Matthews, MSNBC's resident blowhard, likened to "nails on a blackboard").....
We want to applaud our politicians, but we also love to commiserate with them. Our current president, for example, was a decidedly mediocre student who drank too much and probably dabbled in some very illegal drugs. Then he got married, became a father and found Jesus. His life is the classic, universally appealing redemption story, and his admitted weaknesses make him, despite his wealth and privilege, more accessible -- identifiable -- to anyone who has ever screwed up.
Following this line of logic (as it were), John McCain becomes the shoo-in for the veterans' vote, Mitt Romney wins over anyone who has ever been accused of either being in a cult or overusing hair product, and Mike Huckabee has the support of all the country's jolly, Chuck Norris-obsessed homophobes.
Indeed, the right is having no trouble identifying with the Republican candidates; it doesn't matter if they include a serial adulterer, a Mormon, a Jesus freak who wants to allow "God" to re-write the Constitution, or a 122-year-old man who wants to fight a hundred-year war in the Middle East. Reaves continues:
Meanwhile, across the aisle, identity politics have proven kinder to Obama than to Clinton. Black voters, invigorated by his surprise win in Iowa and his strong showing in New Hampshire, have rallied to Obama's side. National polls show 60 percent of black voters prefer him, while 30 percent favor Clinton.
Women simply aren't showing Clinton the same kind of love. Women older than 45 (regardless of race) feel conflicted about Clinton's candidacy; they say they want to support her because she's a woman, and they appreciate firsthand the challenges she has faced, but they're not totally sold. Some cite Bill fatigue, or say they worry that less forward-thinking countries won't respect a woman president. And sometimes you can hear resentment in their voices: Why am I expected to support a woman candidate just because she's a woman?
Here's the thing: You're not. But you are expected not to dismiss her outright because you think you know her. Whatever Clinton was as first lady is a far cry from what she has proven herself to be -- good and otherwise -- as a U.S. senator and attorney.
Let's go back to those comments -- about Clinton's hair, voice, wardrobe -- and imagine if the tone had been racist rather than sexist, and they had been directed at Obama. I have enough faith in this country to believe that the outcry would have been loud and swift.
Any outcry from Clinton, or on her behalf, regarding the persistently sexist tone of so-called political commentary, has been brushed aside, dismissed as political correctness run amok, or as the whining of feminists (the second-dirtiest word in American politics, just behind "liberal").
And that leaves us with a lot of questions and no answers: Is Clinton taking it on the chin from the media because she's a Clinton, or because she's a woman? Does Obama owe what's been a relatively smooth ride to his considerable political acumen or to the fact that he's a man? Should we consider the possibility that his opponents (and the media) tread lightly in his presence because they fear charges of racism -- far more than charges of sexism?
A weird aspect of Hillary's polls is that she does better with women over 45 than under, and Obama tops her among young, college-aged women. Why? Because women in college, just like the guys, don't know shit about the real world. They haven't experienced sex discrimination and unequal paychecks and glass ceilings like older women have. They're mostly encouraged and favored in school and convinced they will be entering a fair and equal job market where there will be no need to even mention that icky word "feminism."
This has created a very difficult situation, since she has to figure out how to present herself and tip-toe around the gender issue. As personalpolitic's Laura Hodes writes, "In crafting her image, Clinton has been constrained by gender expectations in a way that Obama has not been confined by his race. More than that: Obama has been able to capitalize on his race, and has even been applauded for seeming to rise above the issue of race. In contrast, Clinton is derided for any references she makes to her sex.
Obama could proclaim in his Iowa speech, "They thought this day would never come." He frequently and passionately invokes Martin Luther King Jr. -- to great benefit. He refers to his candidacy as "historic" without even having to mention race directly.
When Oprah Winfrey introduced Obama before thousands of mostly African-Americans in South Carolina, race was the subtext. Obama aligned himself with Winfrey, saying their appearance on the stage was "improbable." Why? Because of their race, of course.
But as the first truly viable female presidential candidate, Clinton has had to invent a new playbook. She is struggling to present herself as a female leader who will appeal to other women but somehow not let her sex define her.
Before the New Hampshire primaries, Clinton was so busy focusing on appearing strong and powerful -- that is, not constrained by her sex -- that she came across as cold and calculating.
When she tried to defend herself, using the same words and tone a man would, she was called angry. When she directly mentioned the historic nature of her run for the presidency, she was accused of being divisive.
Nearly every effort Clinton has made to galvanize young women by directly mentioning gender has backfired.
"In so many ways, this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys' club of presidential politics," Clinton said in a November speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College. "So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work together. We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."
The same day, Clinton released a YouTube video called "The Politics of Pile On," showing clips of the male Democratic candidates attacking her.
So what did the pundits do? They pounced on Clinton for "raising the gender card."
Obama has been allowed to ride his love-train of exultation over the first African-American inching his way to the White House, while Hillary hasn't been able to use her gender in the same way without being criticized, despite the fact that women are unrepresented in a way that no other American demographic group can claim.
The serious, issues-driven, tough image of the early parts of her campaign didn't allow her approachable, humorous, genuinely sympathetic side to shine through, and she was beat-up because of it. Back to Hodes:
Women journalists have been among Clinton's harshest critics. (Aren't we often each other's worst foes?)
Maureen Dowd of The New York Times derided Clinton's complaint of the men ganging up on her, as the "Don't hit me, I'm a girl" strategy. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus deplored the "anti-feminist subtext" of her campaign.....
The day after Clinton's attempt to trumpet the historic nature of her candidacy, NBC's Matt Lauer in an interview with Obama said, "Now it sounds to me, senator, as if I just heard the gender card drop."
Obama agreed, responding that when he was asked about foreign policy issues at a recent debate, "I didn't come out and say, 'Look, I'm being hit on because I look different from the rest of the folks on the stage.'"
Ever since, Clinton has shied away from mentioning her sex. She does not focus on issues important to women, talking little about abortion rights, equal pay, child care, parental leave.
She has to play it this way, otherwise the media would break out the baseball bats at the drop of a hat, or toupee as is often the case. Her infamous "choking up" New Hampshire moment struck a cord in many women. Emotion is good. It's ok for Hillary to show it, though not angry emotion. That's no good. White male politicians have been cheered forever when they flip out on one another at debates or along the trail. But a strong woman showing any kind of anger? Forget about it. Men are flat-out intimidated by that.
Hey, I don't wanna get too deep, or as Dennis Miller used to say, "I don't wanna go off on a rant here," but most social orders based on male-dominance over the centuries have created a fear among men of powerful women, a fear, I would argue, that is so deeply embedded in our culture that significant remnants still exist. These anxieties can be almost disabling because women, obviously, are desired, but also, not so obviously, are feared at the same time. Guys, if not verbally then certainly mentally, split females into "good" and "bad" women. The good ones are caregivers, desirable but not overly desirous, submissive, passive, self-deprecating, fragile, and in need of a good strong man to protect them. On the other hand, bad women, across centuries of patriarchal societies, have been thought of or portrayed as castrating, overwhelming, overly horny (sorry, kids may wanna leave the room), power hungry, and even potential killers. And because they pose such a threat to men, they've gotta be punished or gotten rid of.
Think of the witch-hunt holocaust of early modern Europe, or nasty bitches like Diana, Eve, Kali, Lilith, Pandora, the seductive sirens of mythology, Medusa, and others. Not a history fan? Look at our modern movies, especially the horror films, which explicitly or just under the surface exploit the fears, wishes and concerns of the, ahem, mostly male audiences. Think of Alien, The Brood, The Exorcist, or Sisters. Feminine evil is found in messed-up wombs, witches, possessed mothers, men getting seriously wounded or killed, and satanic groups of ghosts. Even movies with a male monster usually have a woman to blame (Psycho), serial killers are always driven to derangement by a horrible mommy when he was a little kid. Don't like horror movies? In Bull Durham ballplayers are warned of women resembling "the Bermuda Triangle," because once the unsuspecting guy gets inside, he may never be heard from again. Ever see Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers? There's a scene where a woman's husband is coming home, so she waits for him in bed, after putting broken glass inside her, um, "Bermuda Triangle." Not a film fan at all? Wanna discuss the hysteria surrounding Lorena Bobbitt in the 90's?
I should probably get back to Hillary Clinton. There is no contemporary phenomenon that better represents male sexual anxiety over a woman's social power than the demonization of Hillary as First Lady. She was portrayed as a sexual danger early on. In an interview with The American Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell, Ted Koppel asked, "What would you do with her, put her in a convent for the next four years?" After the first year in the White House, which was far from easy for Hillary, she said, out of befuddlement, "The idea that I would check my brain at the White House door just doesn't make any sense to me." Later on, the NY Times wrote that she "experimented with more hairstyles than Heinz has varieties." Throughout her husband's administration's 8 years, no amount of makeovers or hairdos would make her intelligence acceptable to the femiphobic right.
There's no sense really in going through her horrible time as First Lady here. We all remember Rush Limbaugh accusing her of murdering Vince Foster, the National Review calling her "that smiling barracuda," the Newsweek cartoon calling her "Hillary Rodham Bobbitt," the publication Hillary Unleashed, the attacks on her attempt to overhaul the health care system, etc., etc.
And anyway, there were the high approval ratings, eclipsing her husband's. Richard Nixon said, "I certainly wouldn't take on Hillary, because she is a very intelligent, very strong, very effective First Lady...She can be a help to her husband, the President, and I think the American people will like that." The Monica Lewinsky scandal allowed Hillary to assume a more likeable "feminine" side, the wounded woman standing by her man. There were a couple of instances that benefitted Mrs. Clinton.
But now that she's evolved into a solid Senator, and a viable candidate for her own presidency, the age-old gender gap is rearing its ugly head yet again, and she's having a lot of trouble with it, though none of it of her own doing. It's clear from an understanding of history, culture, and an incredibly irresponsible media, that she faces an uphill climb. A climb that is not quite as steep for Barack Obama.