No “Right” Way To Be A Woman in Power – Barriers of Sex & Race in ’08 Election

Gloria Steinem has a brief yet interesting op-ed in the Times today about Clinton’s struggle against the gender barrier verses Obama’s against the racial barrier. She writes

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. […]

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo. […]

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers.

The piece doesn’t explore any of these issues, but it does bring them up in a mainstream media that has so far demonstrated an awkwardness and general avoidance of the topic – as though pointing out that Clinton is being regarded differently because she’s a woman is sexist in itself.

In September, Chris Matthews asked Senator Chris Dodd if he found it difficult to debate against a woman. The feminists rolled their eyes and angrily blogged about it. I thought it was a fair question. It simply took at look at the issue from a different point of view.

Gender restrictions in our society, even the ones that deem women weaker and dictate that gentlemen don’t fight with, pick on, or bully women, effect both sexes. In this case, how do you come out swinging in the verbal slug-fest of a presidential debate, when a gentleman is taught to treat women gently, pay for dinner, and open doors? This isn’t about the reality of how women are treated, it’s about image. Image is everything to campaigners, and while aggression against another man is seen as, well…manly, the same demeanor against a woman may well label you a brute.

Whether this is insulting or sexist isn’t the point of the question. The fact that these pre-conceptions exist (and what is a political campaign if not the careful juggling, polling, and pandering to the pre-conceptions of targeted voter groups?) is reason enough to acknowledge them. The very act of not-acknowledging these differences, of perpetuating the long-standing silence surrounding issues of gender and race, is to normalize the stereotypes, to authenticate them, even.

Does gender or race have anything to do with competency in the oval office? Of course not. But when a society is ingrained with so many unfounded fears, insinuations, skewed perceptions, and unspoken assumptions, it becomes clear that many voters believe gender and race have a lot to do with it.

Yesterday hecklers interrupted Clinton’s primary-eve speech in Salem NH by chanting “Iron my shirt!” and brandishing a yellow sign printed with the witty taunt. The stunt got little media attention, although when later in the day Clinton got teary-eyed while talking about her vision for the country, critics erupted with speculation about her strength and emotional ability to lead.

Granted, an informed debate on gender stereotypes is not likely to break out on Hardball, but Matthews was one of the only mainstreamers to ask an obvious question, rather than avoiding the question so as not to offend, in the pretense that the reality that keeps the question relevant doesn’t exist.

Then again, with so much else to consider – health care, national security, choosing a new commander-in-chief – how many Americans want to hold a mirror up to their own deep-seated cultural views and/or stereotypes? Maybe blaming the media is too easy. I have enough trouble finding people who recognize racism and sexism in everyday life, let along those who want to talk about it, or worse yet, admit their own long-standing notions.

Am I being too cynical?

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