Tuesday, January 08, 2008

My Thoughts on Reading Gloria Steinem in the NYT

Gloria Steinem has written an op-ed on the gender aspects of the Democratic primaries. It begins:

THE woman in question became a lawyer after some years as a community organizer, married a corporate lawyer and is the mother of two little girls, ages 9 and 6. Herself the daughter of a white American mother and a black African father — in this race-conscious country, she is considered black — she served as a state legislator for eight years, and became an inspirational voice for national unity.

Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?

I doubt that she would be elected, even if she had the same charisma as Barack Obama has. Note that the children are young. Lots of people would be up in arms about a mother leaving her young children without care. Fathers are still not expected to be in charge of that care.

Steinem's op-ed continues with several themes, and many of them have been ferociously debated all across the blogs. The part I was nodding my hear at is this:

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects "only" the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more "masculine" for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren't too many of them); and because there is still no "right" way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

Note what she says in the first sentence: "Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?" It certainly is not, in public debate. If you make a racist comment on television you lose your job (at least for a week or two). If you make a sexist comment you might get your very own television program as a reward. Don Imus's comments about the "nappy-headed whores" was seen as racist but not really as sexist.

Then there are all those "studies" trying to find out how to explain women's "natural" inferiority and the normality of male dominance by speculating about events in some far-distant time and undefined place. I don't see the racist versions of such "studies" popularized with the sort of semi-leer I've encountered over and over again in the popularizations of the gender studies.

The underlying nudge-nudge-wink in the whole discussion about gender has to do with the assumption that of course women are different and because of that inferior and unsuitable for all the places we haven't traditionally squeezed them in. It's only honest and brave to discuss this openly. Too bad the world isn't fair, but, alas.

None of what I have written is meant to imply that racism isn't a terrible problem, and not only in the United States or that its effects aren't truly awful and destructive. But so are the many consequences of sexism, on worldwide level, and yet we find it somehow unimportant or a little silly.

What about the rest of Steinem's message? Others have discussed that in great detail. I liked this point:

But here's where being black is less of a handicap than being a woman. American society is awash in certain negative stereotypes of African-Americans, especially African-American men. But it's possible for any individual African-American to "transcend" those stereotypes by simply not living up to them. So Barack Obama can't afford to show the kind of populist outrage John Edwards expresses lest he be deemed a threatening radical, but if he avoids falling into pitfalls of stereotype he winds up getting praised in a somewhat condescending, but still helpful to his political career, manner as "one of the good ones."

A woman faces a very different problem. A woman who's seen as possessing the stereotypical characteristics of femininity won't do well in presidential politics. But a woman who's seen as lacking those characteristics will be penalized as well. The female politician can't be too femme or too butch, and she can't be androgynous either.

I don't think that getting rid of the impact of the stereotypes is quite that easy for black men, but it's certainly true that becoming a "generic man" is considerably easier than trying to become "a generic person", and that's what this choice would mean for women. As long as a woman in politics is compared to the two stereotypes of extreme femininity and extreme masculinity she will always fail, for the reasons Yglesias gives in the quote. Which goes to show that we need the "generic person" concept. We don't really have that in areas where it would most count*.
*It is applied in the legal context, sometimes. But paradoxically it has been applied in areas such as pregnancy leaves (initially to limit such leaves only to the length that physical recovery from giving birth would require) where it isn't the right norm. Because a generic person doesn't get pregnant.