Monday, September 19, 2011

Stepping Into The Anthill. Is the Obama White House a Hostile Workplace for Women?

Picture of an anthill taken by me.

Have you heard that Ron Suskind has come out with a new book about the Obama administration? Stuff like this:
A new book claims that the Obama White House is a boys’ club marred by rampant infighting that has hindered the administration’s economic policy and left top female advisers feeling excluded from key conversations.
“Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind due out next Tuesday, details the rivalries among Obama’s top economic advisers, Larry Summers, former chairman of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. It describes constant second-guessing by Summers, now at Harvard, who was seen by others as “imperious and heavy-handed” in his decision-making.
In an excerpt obtained by The Post, a female senior aide to President Obama called the White House a hostile environment for women.
“This place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” former White House communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
Dunn declined to discuss the specifics of the book. But in an interview Friday she said she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House “was not a hostile environment.”
“The president is someone who when he goes home at night he goes home to house full of very strong women,” Dunn added. “He values having strong women around him.”
The book, due out next week, reveals a White House that at times was divided and dysfunctional.
It says that women occupied many of the West Wing’s senior positions, but felt outgunned and outmaneuvered by male colleagues such as former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Summers.

Read the whole column as they say. Then read more about the counter-arguments:
Allegations of a hostile workplace for women also surface in the book, with former communications director Anita Dunn saying, “Looking back, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace ... Because it actually fits all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.”
But now some people quoted have told news sources that their words were either embroidered or simply not quoted correctly. Summers told The Washington Post that “the hearsay attributed to me… is a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context.” Dunn also denied her quote, saying to Politico, “This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn’t true.”
Mmm. I haven't read the book. It's coming out tomorrow, I think.

This means that I can't really say anything informative about the White House as a possibly hostile workplace for women, except to suggest that it most likely has always been one, to some extent, from the very first president.

But what I can do is step right into the anthill we all prefer to ignore, the one which some of us poked with sticks during the previous presidential elections and the Democratic primaries which preceded them. Let me get my socks off first.

That anthill has to do with these questions and others very much like them:

Who are our sister and brothers, in the political sense? Is a liberal/progressive man always going to be a feminist? Is an upper class feminist, whether a woman or a man, always going to represent the poor? Is a white woman a good representative for women of color, just because she is a woman? Is a man of color a good representative for women of color, just because he is a person of color? And so on and so on. They ultimately boiled down to those fights over Hillary Clinton's possible racism and Barack Obama's possible sexism.

I used to stay awake through nights while thinking about the rifts in the political movements, trying to decide on what small space might remain for my type of feminist writing, if any, trying to understand why feminists I respected chose their policies so very differently from other feminists whom I also respected. Going on like that for weeks, until my eyes developed a permanently lovely shade of red, the same shade of irritated red which colored my own conscience after all that scraping and poking and self-examination I undertook during those long nights.

Then I settled on the way I always write which is not as much from the activism angle as it is from the theory angle. And yes, it is a partial cop-out reflecting the fact that I'm not an activist goddess by nature.

But I also believe that my approach has value, because it spells out one way we create inequality in the society. Some people have multiple types of inequality piled on them, others only suffer from few types or none. It is possible to acknowledge all this while still looking at the basic channels we use to construct inequalities of various types.

What this approach allows for is this: It is quite possible for someone oppressed to also oppress in his or her turn. The underlying channels I write about change over time, differ in different places, and sometimes the past victims become the current victimizers and vice versa. The kinds of identity politics which ignore all this can lead us to unexamined assumptions about who might have feminist values. Or any other kinds of progressive values.

The shortest summary of all this is to study the values of an individual politician by what they have actually done, how they have actually behaved, and not on the basis of how they look or what group they belong to. Then demand that your concerns will be taken into account. Do not assume that they will be taken into account. Watch like a hawk, complain like a squeaky wheel and organize like hell.

It isn't quite that simple, I know. The Firsts of any previously ignored group have great symbolic value and also wield an influence on societal views concerning that group. But ultimately we should not assume that Michele Bachmann, say, would run the government in a way which would benefit women, just because she is a woman. At the same time, the way others criticize Bachmann can tell us quite a bit about the channels of sexism in this country. What this means for me is that I will not defend Bachmann's policies just because she is a woman. I will, however, attack criticisms of Bachmann which are based on her being a woman.

I'm going all over the place with this post. My apologies for that. Time to tie it all together and get out of the anthill:

Is the Obama White House a hostile workplace for women? Who knows? But stating that it cannot be because he goes home to strong women is irrelevant. Women's domestic roles are a different kettle of fish. Traditionally, women have been allowed some say and some strength when it comes to the rearing of children and the running of the household. All that tells us nothing about how a man might respond (or not to respond) to his female work colleagues or subordinates.

This is a good place to remind all feminists that women are still often invisible in the public space, that ignoring women makes good political sense if has no real costs and that "the othering" of women is not just something Republican crackpots do. I have seen liberal men do exactly that. I have even seen liberal women do that. Thus, whether the White House is a sexist place or not, we do have a more general problem.

So it goes. But before we lose all sense of proportion, remember that a Republican in the White House is much more likely to turn the whole country into a hostile workplace for women. Republicans are opposed to reproductive freedom for women, opposed to any interference with business, including regulations about gender discrimination, parental leaves and such. And the religious fringe of the Republican Party wants women at home, under the yoke and ruled by their husbands or fathers.