Saturday, 27 April 2013

Sexism is all in your head

[Content note: sexism, racism, victim-blaming language]

Over at The Atlantic, Molly Ball has written about a new trend in American politics: recruiters for national office are now looking for "a few good women". She laments the fact that more women are not stepping up to the plate, because media and societal bias against us doesn't happen anymore. The only thing between us and feminist utopia is the outdated idea that women face a double standard.

Let's start with the obvious. The idea that recruiters are looking specifically for a "few" women, because they think this will make them appeal to voters is problematic, at best. Women are not a tool in a political party's arsenal that can be used to get more voter support. They are humans, with their own individual experiences and political affiliations. Voters are not going to cast their ballots for a party they disagree with just because that party has a few more women.

This is especially important for the Republicans to understand. Voters are not turning away from them because they don't have enough minorities in the ranks. They are turning away because the Republican platform is a garbage mess of anti-choice, anti-human rights, patronizing, gender essentializing, holier-than-thou bullshit (more on that another time).

"... Democratic and Republican operatives alike yearn for nothing more than to discover the next Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat and former natural-gas-plant director who was elected the junior senator from North Dakota last November, or Deb Fischer, a previously little-known state legislator who won a tough Republican primary and then beat former Senator Bob Kerrey on her way to the Senate last year."
Finding a new Deb Fischer will not help them. Especially if the platforms they run on do not reflect the interests of half the American population. You know, those of use that don't have six figure incomes or access to good-quality healthcare that doesn't bankrupt us every time we walk in the door. If your policies are shit, the voters will not support you regardless of the genitalia of your candidates.

 Moving on, Ball makes this claim:
"Evidence suggests that double standards may have once applied but don’t any longer. Shields and Myers prefer female candidates for a simple reason: voters, they say, tend to assume women are more trustworthy, less corruptible, and more in touch with everyday concerns."If that's not complete horseshit, I don't know what is. Thank you for letting me know female politicians are no longer subject to double standards! I guess us silly feminists can calm down now and move on to "real issues".

If you think women in politics don't suffer as a result of their gender, what do you say to these black female politicians in Florida who had to walk out of a debate because their opponents completely disregarded their lives and experience. Here's a tip: privileged white man talking about abortion among black women and ignoring those same black women's opinions is Not Cool. In fact, it's pretty damn racist, as well as sexist.

How about this ongoing list called "Take Your Boobs to the White House Watch" over at Shakesville? If even a renowned politician like Hillary Clinton cannot escape the constant speculation about her decisions, the second-guessing, and the constant harping that she's a "role model", that she's "responsible" for the women who look up to her, then how bad must the other women in Washington have it?

And don't get me started on the voters. If walking down a street in Anywhere, USA is liable to get me cat-called and harassed just for having breasts and a vagina, then I highly doubt that those same men think female candidate are just as good or better than male politicians because of their better ability to compromise. In fact, I doubt that compromise as a good ability to have is even on their minds.

"Both consultants also emphasized that women are harder to criticize than men."

Really? REALLY? In what way could female candidates possibly be harder to criticize than men?

How many times have you seen a man being castigated for leaving his children at home and entering the workforce? How often do male politicians get accused of "unprofessionalism" and "inexperience" for wearing clothes that are not sexy enough, looking tired, or heaven forfend, being "overweight"? How many male politicians have had articles about them headlined with "Can He Cry His Way to the White House"?

"After the 2010 midterm elections, two Washington political scientists, Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer Lawless of American University, conducted a massive analysis of nearly 5,000 newspaper articles covering 342 congressional races. They found that women candidates got just as much coverage as men, and were no more likely to be described in terms of their clothing, appearance, or family life."

For a more detailed critique of the study Ball mentions, you can read Anita Finlay's post here. But to quickly rehash Finlay's main points: Hayes and Lawless only covered newspapers, not TV (which tends to be harsher on women), they did not deal with female candidates for the presidency (which is a tougher race), and various other studies (by Erica Falk, Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake) found the exact opposite results that Hayes and Lawless published.

Finally, Ball says:
"So what is holding them back? Brooks believes that women’s own perceptions haven’t caught up with reality. When women run for office, they win just as often as men do. But fewer women run in the first place, perhaps because they’re convinced they will have a tougher time, face more scrutiny, and be subjected to unfair attacks and double standards. In one 2008 survey conducted by Lawless and another researcher, 87 percent of women said they thought the electoral environment was more challenging for women than for men. “That old conventional wisdom that women are at a disadvantage really needs to be debunked if we’re going to fix the pipeline problem,” Brooks told me." (emphasis mine)

No. What we need to "debunk" is the persistent idea that women are less, that their bodies are communal property, that they are more this, less that, always something and never that other thing. We need to stop essentializing gender and treating women like a monolith. We need to protest when politicians talk about women as if they were simply tools to be used to get more votes and then be cast aside.

Ball is perpetuating the idea that women are all alike. She thinks we should be grateful for the increased attention from politicians, that the only thing holding us back now is our own obsolete and antiquated notion of life in the spotlight. "Jump in," she's saying. "The water isn't cold anymore!"

But it is still cold. It's freezing. And until she, and others like her, realize that we cannot be blamed as individuals for the institutionalized problems of our entire society, we will not feel safe jumping in.  

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