Thursday, January 10, 2008

New York Times On Sexism

Sadly, also on Hillary Clinton. Do you realize what an enormous problem the lack of women in politics is? There aren't enough juicy targets for sexism. Sexists have to attack the few women up there using all that wonderful artillery that applies hateful language not only to the intended target, such as Billary or Hitlery, but to the majority of this world's people: women.

It's pretty horrible and must be fixed as soon as possible. We need more female targets for the sexists, obviously. It's their right, after all! And seeing it this way makes me understand why some feminists don't think that getting more women into politics is important at all or one of those "whatever" issues. It would just give the assholes more material to work on.

I'm in a bad mood and the viper-tongue is out. Which means that what you will ultimately read is a many-times-revised euphemism of what I originally wrote.

But I shouldn't be in a bad mood! The New York Times, the place where David Brooks and Maureen Dowd are nestled while scribbling missives about that contemptible sex, women (can smart women get laid?, can female eyeballs actually see?), has a piece on sexism today! Snoopy-dance time. Make it a stripping dance if you are a woman, because otherwise you are a tight-ass and no fun to be around. Then go and read the piece. Oh, and get me a coffee while you're at it.

Gawd I sound old-fashioned. We all know that this is the era of post-feminism. Sexism is dead and buried, all women have completely equal rights in everything and more than equal rights in some fields. It's mostly men who are oppressed, these days, and the oppressors are the feminazis. To say anything else means identity politics, and identity politics are wrong unless your identity is a white, Christian, heterosexual male. But otherwise they are wrong. And we don't do identity politics on the left anymore.

Do you know what really angers me? No, not what I wrote above, but the interpretation of sexism as just having to do with sexual jeers and ridiculing of the women in the public sphere. It's as if the question of "why" this jeering and ridiculing happens is veiled, ignored, a taboo. Or as if we all know the "why", it's just to decide if we are infringing the First Amendment rights of sexists too much or not enough.

So why do many people in the media treat Hillary as if she was a piece of rotting meat dragged along in some nightmarish carnival? Sure, many treat her like that because they don't like her personality, her policies, her marriage or her history or because they don't like the concept of dynasties or because they don't like Bill Clinton, his policies, his personality, or his penis being titillated. And sure, it's hard to differentiate between bashing this one particular woman and all women.

But we have all been asked to pretty much assume that Hillary Clinton is bashed as "Hillary" not as the first woman ever to run in the presidential primaries of the United States. That there has never been a woman in that place is regarded as unimportant, trivial, obviously not something to think about when understanding why a Facebook group such as "Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich" exists and why it has 23,000 members.

Even I assumed that most opposition to Hillary Clinton was personal, not sexist, until the way the so-called "tears" incident was treated in the media and on the Internet. Hillary-the-automatic-robot turned in one minute into Hillary-the-too-emotional-woman, and there was much jubilation over this in the media. Now we can get rid of that woman. She is scheming and manipulating and no male politician has ever schemed and manipulated.

It's not clear to me what percentage of Hillary-hatred is based on her personal history or on political manipulation by those who prefer another candidate (yes, manipulation is quite common in politics) and what percentage is based on a general fear and loathing of women in power. But the latter percentage looks to me to be much higher than I anticipated.

And that is why it is important to dig deeper into this whole sordid spectacle. The problem is not just that Hillary is bombed with sexist insults and that some of those bombs end up exploding in the living-rooms of American women. The problem is the reason for these sexist insults, and the reason is not just to have some fun teasing women, but to keep women out of certain parts of the power structure.

Why the wish to keep women out? There are both psychological reasons, starting from that Biblical verse of man being the head of woman, continuing into that whole murky psychology of masculinity and what it means for a man to take orders from a woman (emasculation! eek!) and into a similarly murky psychology of femininity and the needs (inculcated?) to have a man take care of the important business, and cultural/historical reasons, from the fear of the unknown (we have never had a woman president) to the acknowledgment that this is the planet of the guys and as long as other guys won't respect a woman, electing one isn't going to help in running the business of politics, either domestically or internationally.

Then there are very practical reasons: What if women actually want different policies? What if the political game changes when enough of the players are women?

Digging out these hidden reasons and discussing them is important, not only from the sexist angle, but also because so many of us seem to have forgotten the reasons why feminism wanted to see more women in decision-making roles in the first place.

These reasons have to do with both the process and the outcome of politics. First, a system which is truly open for both men and women should ultimately result in a larger number of women in top positions than one which is closed to women or only partially open to them. If we don't see this outcome of more women, it is important to ask whether the system really works as intended. The lack of women might have other explanations, true, but the number of women in those positions is the only preliminary yardstick we have for measuring progress or for identifying lack of it.

Second, once an adequate number of women have positions of power the policies might change to reflect more closely the life experiences of women. In most cases this will not happen with just one token woman. But it will happen when being a woman is no longer a curiosity in politics, and the policies that follow are more likely to reflect the needs of both men and women than the current policies.

Third, sexism in politics itself is strongly dependent on the number of women in the game. Virginia Valian (in Why So Slow) has argued that as long as women are a small minority in an occupation, say, a female applicant will be first viewed as a woman and only next as a person, but once the female labor force in the occupation reaches some critical minimum size (say, 30%), female applicants to that occupation are no longer viewed as female first and professionals second. A sort of gender-blindness ensues.

A similar process is likely to take place in politics. Once we have enough women in the Congress, they won't make the Congress look like "a shopping mall" (this was Strom Thurmond's reaction to new female member in the Congress in the 1990s). In fact, they start looking like your ordinary politicians.

Fourth, to have women in positions of power might change the level of general sexism by presenting alternative images of women which are not examples of weakness, of sexual desirability, of evil ex-wives or of greedy girlfriends or whatever it is that fuels the daydreams of misogynists. It might even weaken some of those ideas that the definition of a "real man" is one who can dominate over women.