Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Hissy Fit (by Liz)

I know we've discussed it here this past week, but I am still fuming over the coverage of the Secretary of State's trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hillary Clinton endured blatant, unchecked sexism as a presidential candidate. In addition to the intense scrutiny and partisanship any candidate faces, she was vilified merely for being female. And the sexism continues. Her sharp response to the Congolese student has been characterized as a temper tantrum, an eruption, a hissy fit, an outburst. How often does the media describe a man's behavior as a hissy fit?

Some of the more generous stories about Clinton's comments offer theories as to why she answered the way she did: jet lag, exhaustion, marital troubles, jealousy of Bill Clinton and VP Biden's international activities. The Secretary of State needs no excuse for her behavior. In my opinion, she demonstrated incredible restraint.

Several years ago, I was working as the head of product development for a U.S. company. I flew with a male coworker to a tradeshow in Germany to source new products. For two days, my coworker and I walked the tradeshow floor negotiating deals. As we approached each new vendor we both extended our hands to shake and exchange business cards. The majority of the vendors shook my coworker's hand and ignored mine. I passed out and collected very few business cards. Several vendors assumed I was the wife of my coworker. Even after I corrected one man, he refused to start a meeting with me until my "husband" was present. My response was similar to Clinton's.

I was not tired. I did not have jet lag. Nor did I have any marital problems. What I did have was a collection of sexist experiences over the course of my career that framed my response. I had been in too many board rooms where women were interrupted, ignored or asked to take notes, regardless of their seniority. I had seen female coworkers deflect sexual advances, fight for fair maternity leave and earn less pay than their male counterparts. So when I was dismissed that day in Germany, my response encompassed more than just the immediate situation.

Hillary Clinton has witnessed much more than I have. She flew to a country where a war on women is raging. According to the U.N., four hundred cases of rape are reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo each month. More than half of the displaced people in the country are women.

Around the globe, women are fighting for equal rights. The more privileged among us are struggling for workplace equality: fair pay and a shot at the corner office. The less fortunate are fighting for the most basic rights: for their safety and the safety of their children. Hillary Clinton sees these struggles every day. So when asked what appeared to be a sexist question in a country where women are in grave danger, I think a temper tantrum, an eruption or an outburst would have been perfectly justified. In fact, when you view Clinton's reaction through a broader lense, when you look at all of the experiences that framed her answer, I think her response was calm, cool and collected.