Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Presidential Politics, a Woman for President, and "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" Feminism

When I wrote about the debate Saturday night, there were pretty much two responses in comments: "Ugh, you like Hillary?" and "Yay, you like Hillary!" I'll say now as I said then, that it's a long primary season. I'm not sure for whom I'll vote in my primary that won't mean a hill of beans, and it's still very, very early for anyone to have made up her mind in an absolute and irrevocable way. But do I respect Hillary Clinton? Yes. Do I think that people (liberals, conservatives, men, women, pundits, whatever) who seem to think that they can take gender out of the equation when they evaluate her her are foolish? Yes. And so that's why I'm writing this post. Not because I "like" Hillary or because I am in some way endorsing her, but because I want to talk about gender and power in this country, and I want to talk about it in relation to what I've noticed about the coverage of "Hillary" (Not Clinton, not Senator Clinton, just Hillary, sort of like Madonna or that Fergalicious Fergie) and my thoughts as I prepare to teach for the first time in the coming semester a class on feminist theory.

"Message, Not Gender, Turns Voters Off Clinton"

Or so said a Reuters article as recently as yesterday, and so said David Gregory on the Tim Russert show on MSNBC on Sunday.

(Speaking of gender and power, notice the next time you're glancing at the 24-hour news channels and the pundit shows how many pundits are men. And then notice how many of the people slogging away at the various campaign headquarters are women. And then ask yourself why it is that it takes Gloria Steinem to ask why sex isn't taken as seriously as a barrier to achievement, only the very next day to have Maureen Dowd say that Hillary came off in her victory speech last night like "the heroine of a Lifetime movie." If only Gloria Steinem is allowed to utter the F-word - feminism - in this country, like a blast to the second-wave past, and if everybody else is supposed to be somehow "beyond" taking gender seriously, or if by not taking gender seriously as a barrier it somehow proves that we are more sophisticated, and unlike those philistines who would be compelled by heroines of Lifetime movies, I suppose, well, that to me indicates exactly how insidious the impact of gender continues to be. But I digress.)

The thing that's difficult about discussing gender in the context of Hillary Clinton's candidacy is that if one admits that gender influences the way that we evaluate her, it can seem as if we're trying to make it a contest between gender and race as indexes of electability. That one is somehow more important or more of a detriment than the other. That one would be more "history-making." So the way that the conversation seems to be framed is that sex/gender are being taken off the table, at least as something to be discussed concretely or with any sort of specificity, while race remains on the table, with Barack Obama signifying just how far we've come as a nation and giving us cause for self-congratulation.

But I would argue that it's impossible for sex/gender really to be off the table in our evaluation of Clinton. If it were off the table, hecklers wouldn't have yelled "Iron my shirt!" at Clinton. I wouldn't have seen a bumper sticker last spring that declared, "Women belong in the house - Not the White House" with an unflattering picture of Clinton. (I looked for an image of this on google, but couldn't find one. I did however, find these, which make the point pretty well. Indeed, bitches do love Hillary.) So when I get the message that sex/gender aren't actually in play when voters choose to support Clinton or not, I am skeptical. Ultimately, by taking sex/gender off the table, all it does is validate sexist and misogynistic resistances against her, ones to which we all are susceptible (men and women alike) because ultimately, and I know this will shock you, our culture continues to be patriarchal.

Let's take, for example, the continued charges against Clinton that she is a "polarizing" figure.

I've been troubled by the emphasis on this for a while now. First of all, I find it troubling because we elected a "uniter, not a divider" in 2000, and look where that got us. Even when I disagree with Clinton, I've got to say, I don't mind terribly that "uniting" the country isn't the first thing on her agenda. Perhaps I'm a pragmatist, but I'm more interested in what a candidate will do about real life issues like the economy first and only in a secondary way does their ability to make me have a warm and fuzzy feeling about my country being united matter. I feel like if some of the fucked up things about our country are fixed then unity will follow. How we can talk about unity without the fucked up things having been addressed, well, I'm not entirely sure.

But aside from that, it strikes me that the attachment of the word "polarizing," with all its negative connotations, becomes even more negative because Clinton is a woman. Let's go back to Women's Studies 101 for a moment. What qualities are associated with femininity? Nurturing. Compassion. Reconciliation. Passivity. An emphasis on "feelings" over ideas. And the list goes on. Women are supposed to be more about being relational - to keep the homefires burning and all that. Now, if a woman is "polarizing," what does that translate into, given the cultural baggage that weighs down the figure of Woman? Well, friends, it translates into something like, "Hillary is a ball-breaking bitch who doesn't know her place." To my mind, we can talk about a few other candidates on the ballots this primary season as "polarizing" - Mike Huckabee, anyone? Rudy Giuliani? God, even John McCain - but we don't. The media doesn't. Because, at the end of the day, we don't expect the same things of men that we expect of women. And if a man does talk about "uniting' the country, he's not evaluated negatively for that "vision" but rather he's seen as having a "vision" whereas, I suspect although I could be wrong, that if such were a female candidate's emphasis that she would be seen as *lacking* in vision because she'd be performing within the bounds of prescribed femininity, which equates with weakness. In other words, when it comes to the whole "polarizing" thing, I think a woman candidate is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Just as she's damned if she does "tear up" and damned if she doesn't convey to voters that she has "real" emotions.

So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts as I prepare to teach feminist theory?

Well, the students whom I will teach for the most part fall into that "generation of younger voters" who, by all reports and from my own conversations with students, are attracted by Barack Obama. They, for the most part, fall into a generation that is reluctant to self-identify with the term "feminist." Moreover, they come from a region in which the term "feminazi" still comes up in conversation (indeed, it's a real flashback to 1992 here in that regard) and has even come up on a few choice student evaluations of mine. In other words, I teach students who come from fairly conservative backgrounds who at the same time are compelled by the idea of radical change.

It strikes me as I finalize the syllabus for my course that I am incredibly invested in the idea of demonstrating the ways in which "feminism" continues to be a radical political position, even as it has in many respects been institutionalized by the academy. Even "theoretical feminism" (as opposed to a more activist, grass-roots sort of feminism), for me, constitutes a mode of inquiry and resistance that often is dismissed in contemporary conversations about power in our culture. For students who believe in a "You've come a long way, baby," Sex and the City style of feminism, for students who see women as having achieved equality with men (in spite of the fact that women still make around 76 cents on the dollar), I think it's important to highlight the ways in which sex and gender still inform our perceptions and choices in a culture that continues to position women as second-class citizens. I think it's important to have a language for talking about women and gender that moves beyond "she just turns me off." If Hillary Clinton turns my students off, I want for them to have a sense of *why* she does so and to be able to situate those reasons in the context of how women are perceived generally in our culture. I want them to see that sexist responses or attitudes aren't solely the territory of men, but rather that in a cultural context that is patriarchal, even women's responses to other women are shaped by sexist attitudes. I want them to see that it's not a contest about which group is more marginalized - African-Americans or women - but rather that both groups are marginalized in our culture and that even a vote for Hillary is a vote against the status quo, regardless of the political capital that she holds or some of her more conservative positions.

So will I vote for Hillary? I don't know. Will I have the chance to do so? For me, that is a more interesting question than many of the others that are asked about her candidacy.


Susan said...

Great post... I was fascinated to see that most of the reporters thought that Clinton's tears on Monday were not genuine, but for many people they made her seem more "real". In other words, she was more feminine.

There is another line of anti-Hilary argument, though, that is more complicated: there are people who feel that our politics have become too "aristocratic", and having 24-28 years of presidents from two families is not healthy. I have some sympathy with that. And yet we are punishing Hillary for being married to Bill. Again, that's not necessarily a reason to support Hillary or not, but the operation of sexism is more complex.

Flavia said...

Love your analysis of why Hillary gets described as "polarizing" when others who are more obviously polarizing, like the Hucks, don't.

Now, I'd be ecstatic if any of the three Demo front-runners took the White House--I like them all to varying degrees. But I'm pulling for Hillary.

timna said...

I'm also thinking about syllabi and students and adding links that will expand the way we think about the candidates in gendered terms. Thanks.

adjunct whore said...

dr. crazy--i 100% agree with your analysis of how gener cannot be taken out of the equation--as it never can--

i agree also that "Hillary" faces ridiculous obstacles that have everything to do with her position as a modifier--wife, mother--

even when she wins, ala last night, a focal point is her capacity to feel, emote, or fake tears--(subtext: is she a real woman? does she *care* about us?)

my critique of her has to do with my politics which are pretty far left of hers and my point the other day was only to say that her positions, voting history, and allegiences matter more to me than what she symbolizes by virtue of her gender.

this is to say nothing of my real compassion for her as a public figure who is relentlessly policed by gender politics in this country.

Dr. Crazy said...

AW: If one acknowledges how gender is influencing the way that Clinton is depicted, and considers it carefully, and *then* engages in critique of her based on her positions, voting history, etc., as you do, I think that's really a good thing. I think the difficulty is that often critique of Clinton gets burdened with rhetoric that is very much anti-woman, and so genuine critique of her as a political figure can't happen, whether we're talking about critique that comes from either the left or the right.

Ultimately, I think that "symbolic value" shouldn't really be what governs voting choices, whether we're talking about Clinton or Obama. Similarly, voting choices shouldn't be governed by whether a candidate seems like they're somebody with whom we'd like to have a beer. All of that is window dressing, at the end of the day, and it's not central to the *job* of president.

adjunct whore said...

yes, again, i agree. i find the treatment of her (and as i said, even when positive) so burdened by misogyny that it is difficult to get beyond.

really, this election process has been a startling reminder of the level of misogyny which still dictates the nation. from the start of her campaign, i have thought that the signs pointed to an unwillingness to elect a woman for president--

i hope that i'm wrong and that it is Senator Clinton, because of so many long associations voters attach to her, which makes her specifically more difficult to elect.

Snarky Prof said...

Thanks for some truly brilliant observations here. I was actually thinking about this this morning as I was listening to the political commentators on our local news radio station (traffic reports are crucial to my existence) talk about how HC won in NH in spite of the fact that her voice apparently reminds so many men of a nagging fishwife. Funny that no one was paying attention to speaking ability in the past two elections. It reminded me of an article from Time Magazine about 20 years ago about the attractiveness of Margaret Thatcher's legs. Why would a semi-serious magazine see this as a reasonable topic of discussion? Anyone who thinks feminism as a movement has outlived its usefulness simply isn't paying attention.

Brigindo said...

Great post. I love your analysis and am so happy to see it being discussed. However I would point out that in addition to the obvious fact that gender does influence how we evaluate HC, I would say that gender also influences how we evaluate all the candidates. It may seem a small point but I think it's important to recognize that we "see" gender even when there are only men on the podium, we just call it "normal."

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm glad you made that point, Brigindo. I had originally intended on including something about about that, but I was already going on so long that I didn't. =)

Belle said...

I'm one of those people who worries about HC's polarizing, but more in the way that the right wingnuts have used her as the monster in the closet to turn out their voters. Literally, in one recent Senate race when even the Republicans couldn't get support for the Rep candidate (he's just too crazed) they fell back on a previously and still successful strategy that resulted in a win for the crazed one: 'not voting for X is putting Hillary and Ted Kennedy in power.' And yes, it worked. He's there now, crazy as ever. Making people like Rick Santorum look moderate.

You are absolutely on with your analysis, and I thank you for that. I did ask a friend once why she was Hillary to everybody else's last name. He sent me a link to an article (long since forgotten, but a reputable source) that reported it as a conscious choice on her campaign's part - to make her more personable and less intimidating. If it was her choice, does it make a difference?

Lesboprof said...

Dr. Crazy:

I like your analysis and discussion so much better than Steinem's piece, which I found profoundly disturbing. But even with your analysis, I think your easy read of why students (or other feminist faculty?) might support Obama assumes too much.

I encourage you and your readers to check out Shark-fu's post on Steinem's piece. It is a cogent and very thoughtful critique of what is wrong when Steinem tries to critique sexism by attacking presentations and representations of Obama.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks so much for that link, Lesboprof. It responds to so much that was troubling in Steinem's piece (and that I'll admit I overlooked when I first read it, and so I needed to see a piece in response that didn't just look the other way), and one thing I'd say is that this is a problem with the fact that Gloria Steinem remains the only woman who is allowed to proclaim her feminism in the media, more than 30 years after the second wave. Why aren't there a new generation of feminists who've assumed the mantle - feminists of color, of different class status, etc. - and who speak out for feminist issues and to whom the media pays attention?

As for my assumptions about why students might support Obama, I want to be clear that I'm talking specifically about *my* students, who are primarily white, *incredibly* sheltered, do not generally interact with people of other races or cultures - or even people who went to different high schools from the one that they attended. My students who've spoken with me about Obama are primarily compelled because he's inspiring (a) and because of his position on Iraq (b). They think it would be historic for there to be an African-American president, even if they don't actually have any African-American friends and when there are African-American students in my classes they are segregated from the rest in the classroom and only if I assign groups if I do class activities do they interact with the students or do the students interact with them. I wish I were kidding.

Now, for my women students, they are *really* turned off by feminism because they think that it means that they can't get married and have babies or that they must hate men. They think feminism *means* being a bitch, and they are often hugely surprised when I talk about being a feminist as if there's nothing wrong with it. Add to that Clinton's tendency to talk about boring policy issues to do with things like the economy, and she is not at all a compelling candidate for them.

As for feminist faculty who support Obama, I actually know a fair number, and I think that they support him for solid reasons. As I said a few times, I seriously haven't made up my mind at all, and I could well be supporting Obama when my primary happens just before the convention. I suppose I do think that there is a distinction between why my students find Obama compelling and why my colleagues would, and that distinction has a lot to do with life experience, level of education, and economic background.

Dr. Crazy said...

Belle: If it's Hillary's "choice" to be Hillary, does it make a difference when her opponents refer to her as that?

Yes. Why? Because If Senator Edwards is going respectfully to refer to the other candidates as Senator Obama and Governor Richardson then out of common courtesy he should be giving Clinton the title. It's sort of like how I, out of respect and courtesy, refer to my colleagues as Dr. So-and-So in front of my students.

And I'm sorry, but when you call a woman by her first name and all of the others in the race by their titles, it's like saying she's not really a candidate, and it is diminishing. Much like the students of mine who just assume that they can call me Firstname when they would never DARE to take that liberty with my male colleagues. (I won't get into the male students who've called me "dear" or "sweetheart.")

Maggie said...

Great post. There's an EXCELLENT piece in Salon (I think yesterday) that says what I would want to say about all this, but much more brilliantly than I ever would.

Basically: I'm not a fan of Hillary, but the way pundits talk about her makes me ill and makes me WANT to vote for her!

Flavia said...

In re: younger feminists: Feministing has had some really great analysis of the coverage/treatment of Clinton in the media. I realize they don't have a platform anything like the NYT, but I still think they're doing a lot of good work.

Dr. Crazy said...

You're right that Feministing is doing great work, Flavia (I still have to check out the Salon article). I suppose that my... criticism? I think that's the word.... that my criticism is that for most mainstream Americans, Americans with maybe a college degree or maybe just a high school diploma, Feministing or Salon aren't necessarily on the radar. (Not that the NYT necessarily is either, but my mom - who I use as the barometer of such things - has heard of Gloria Steinem and she has not heard of Feministing or Salon.) And if that's the case, then those forums only preach to the converted - they're not bringing new people to feminism or even putting feminism on the table for discussion for those who aren't already either for or against it. Does that make sense? I'm a little wacky after working out :) Ah, the endorphins!

Ms. T said...

As an older feminist, but several years younger than Steinem, I have a completely different view of Hillary than she does. (And I call her Hillary to distinguish from Bill.)

In the first place, I do not consider Hillary's White House years as on the job training. I see them as exercise in ego. She failed miserably at trying to pass health care reform legislation and managed to alienate almost every Republican in Congress. This is why Bush was able to win his election as a "unifier". While Dems and Republicans will always have their fundamental differences, never before had the parties drawn their lines so fiercely. And, of course, Bush just made that worse.

Speaking of Bush, he actually did have 4 years of experience as President when he walked into the Oval Office on day one of his second term. Then he proceeded to drag this country even further down than he had in the first 4 years. So lets be realistic about exactly what experience is worth in and of itself.

I believe Hillary's gender is helping her in this race. If it were not for that, and the fact that she is married to a former President, I seriously doubt anyone would have thought twice about her as a potential President. Leave Bill out of the equation and look at her on her own and she's just not that impressive. At least, not in a good way.

Unfortunately, you cannot take Bill out of the equation. I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would want a rerun of the Bill and Hillary show. There is no possible way he will be able to escape the tabloids for 4 full years. And once again, we will have the world making fun of the scandals coming out of the White House. I'd rather have a President who will not be distracted by dealing with whatever intern her husband is chasing. Can we please elect a president with some semblance of moral fiber? It's been at least 15 years since we've had one.

And, finally, I see Hillary as the embodiment of the type of women most feminists abhor. Marrying your way up the ladder is just the legal contract version of sleeping your way up. After all the public humiliation Bill put her through, you have to wonder if she has stayed married to him only because she couldn't be elected President without him.

In order to get any kind of significant legislation passed as President, Hillary will need to win over a great many of the Republicans she made enemies out of so long ago. And they don't like her any more now than they did then. Saying that she can foster a new bipartisanship? That's the biggest fairy tale I've ever heard.

I hear there are some sharp new women in Congress these days. I'll just wait for one of them.

Helen said...

Mrs. T:

Do you call George W Bush by his full name always to distinguish him from his father?

"Marrying your way up the ladder is just the legal contract version of sleeping your way up."

Wow. So are you implying that Hillary Clinton married Bill in 1975 in order to sleep her way to the top? She specifically thought to herself 'Self, let's whore ourself out to Bill so that we can run for president in 32 years'

"After all the public humiliation Bill put her through, you have to wonder if she has stayed married to him only because she couldn't be elected President without him."

These are arguments I read on Mens Rights Activists sites and on conservative blogs. I would never expect them from a feminist.

I learn something new every day.