f/k/a . . . the archives

May 20, 2008

trumping reality with the sexism card

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 4:48 pm

  . . . . . . . .    The recent rash of articles asking whether sexism is the cause of Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the nomination for the presidency has the f/k/a Gang again frustrated by our pledge to avoid political punditry. As the besieged moderator of many weblog alter egos, I’ve decided to present links to a sampling of the materials on sexism and gender in the presidential campaign (with a few excerpts), quote at length below the fold from a particularly good rebuttal to the sexism charge from the Liberal Values Blog, and spend a little time asking what sexism is and isn’t and when playing the sexism card is inappropriate.

Here are links to a few relevant pieces dealing with the sexism/gender issue in the Democratic presidential primary campaign, which were published over the past week:

  • Gender Issue Lives On as Clinton’s Hopes Dim” (New York Times, by Jodi Kantor, May 19, 2008), where Geraldine Ferraro claims Obama is “terribly sexist,” and one Clinton supporter says “Sexism has played a really big role in the race.” In contrast, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, opines that “When people look at the arc of the campaign, it will be seen that being a woman, in the end, was not a detriment and if anything it was a help to her,” and that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is faltering because of “strategic, tactical things that have nothing to do with her being a woman.”
  • [update: May 20th, 10 PM]: “Clinton chastises press for ignoring sexism”  CNN.com, May 20, 2008) Clinton “also said she doesn’t believe racism has played a role in the presidential campaign. But the New York senator said sexist attitudes among voters and members of the media have been a constant detriment to her White House hopes.” [note: She wants the press to take the occasional actions of individual members of the public -- e.g., the man with an "Iron My Shirt" sign -- as seriously as the purported race-baiting tactics of her own campaign. It is not news that there are some sexists and some racists in America; it is news if a candidate is playing to one of those groups.]
    • update (May 21, 2008): For a serious response to the Sexism Charges, done with a humorous twist, see “My Sexist reasons for not voting for Hillary” (by Ouroboros, at Daily Kos, May 20, 2008). It provides an excellent issue by issue list of reasons why some of us won’t vote for Hillary.
  • WAMC FM, my local public radio station, had a Roundtable segment yesterday, focusing on this week’s (poorly-phrased) question from Time Magazine, “Do women have an obligation to support a serious woman candidate?” You can find an array of answers from listeners in the Comment section of the WAMC Inside weblog.
  • In “Clinton’s supporters decry sexism in campaignHillary1000 weblogger Donna Darko (May 16, 2008), claims “No voting block in my lifetime has been so utterly disrespected, vilified unjustly with accusations of racism, and basically had to endure endless harangues, while the Democratic Party and so called “progressive” coalition has shown more disrespect to women supporting Clinton than the Republican Party, treating Clinton supporters as second class citizens, especially if you happen to be named Hillary Clinton.”
  • The Feminist Divide Over Obama” (Time.com, by Amy Sullivan, May 16, 2008); and “Clinton’s ‘sexism’ dodge” (Boston Globe, by Scot Lehigh, May 16, 2008)
  • Ann Althouse’s post “If Hillary is not to be the first woman President, is there a woman President on the horizon?” (Althouse, May 18, 2008), in which the opinionated law professor exclaims,

“I think people were open to the idea of a woman President, but Hillary Clinton did not suit us. We don’t want someone else like her. We want someone different. For starters, how about a woman who did not build her political career through her husband?”

  • In his column today “The Sisters are Steamed” (May 20, 2008),” Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz says:

“On an emotional level, it’s easy to understand why many female voters feel they’re been robbed. For the first time in their lifetimes, they could see one of their own occupying the Oval Office. And, in the space of a few weeks, that dream began to evaporate.

“Had the contest gone the other way, certainly many African American voters would have felt they had been deprived of a historic chance to elect the first black president.

“But there is a certain degree of identity politics in this narrative, one that the media haven’t been shy about pushing this season. Should all women vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, and assume that men who oppose her are sexist (and women who back Obama are traitors)? Should all African Americans support Obama because of his race and assume that whites who vote against him are racist? Doesn’t that reduce both candidates to one-dimensional symbols and ignore the substance of what they have to say or how they would govern?”

The best succinct rebuttal to charges that sexism will be the cause of Hillary Clinton’s failure to secure the Democratic presidential candidacy can be found in “Sexism and the Clinton Campaign” (Liberal Values Blog, by Ron Chusid, May 17, 2008), where Ron Chusid says:

“I doubt anyone would say that there is no sexism at all, but this is hardly the major factor why Clinton is losing. . . . If Democrats were opposed to a woman president, they wouldn’t have given her this early support. . . . The problem is not that Democrats do not want a woman nominee. They just do not want this woman for reasons having nothing to do with her gender.” At the bottom of this posting [click "more" if you're reading from our main page], I’ve provided extensive excerpts from Chusid’s piece.

Although his main topic is when racism and other forms of discrimination should be deemed unlawful, Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford offers some relevant thoughts in his recently-published book “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse” (2008). Prof. Ford notes, for instance that:

[at 32 -33] “The success of the civil rights movement inspired many others to frame their struggles in similar terms. Feminists, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and the elderly are just a few of the groups who have successfully made explicit analogies to the cause of racial justice. . . . At best, these claims seek to extend the priciples underlying civil rights to new situations. At worse, these claims seem to define ‘bigotry’ so broadly that the losing side of almost any social or political conflict can claim to be the victims of racelike bias. Today almost anyone can play the race card by ,making claims of what I’ll call racism by analogy.”

“Chapter Two [of The Race Card] looks at the explosion of racism-by-analogy claims. . . . Because the law often offers little or no redress for garden-variety unfairness, many people are tempted to recast their grievance in terms that the law will recognize: in other words, to play the race card.”

[at 105] “Racism by analogy is both inevitable and problematic. We can’t banish analogy, but we must manage and limit it with attention to the significant distinctions among different forms of discrimination. In the abstract, racism, sexism, religious intolerance, bias against the aged, and contempt for the disabled all involve analogous wrongs — bias, intolerance, bigotry — and call for comparable remedies. But, in practice each involves different policy choices, different trade-offs, and different legal mandates.”

[If you'd like to sample more of this thoughtful, moderate book, see the first chapter here (New York Times, Feb. 6, 2008); and three excerpts from Slate.com.]

Of course, in this modest weblog posting, I’m not trying to figure out when the law should have remedies for sexual discrimination. The much more humble issue here is when, in general, it is appropriate to brand an action or result as sexism, and an individual — or vast sectors of our populace — sexist.

. . What is Sexism? . .

Our first task is asking just what sexism is. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000) says sexism is “1. Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women. 2. Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.”

Wikipedia’s entry on the subject explains further that:

“Sexism is a belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to or more valuable than the other. It is also called male and female chauvinism and can also refer to a hatred or distrust towards the opposite or same sex as a whole (misogyny and misandry), or imposing stereotypes of masculinity on men or femininity on women.

“Sexism refers to any and all systemic differentiations based on the sex of the individuals not based on their individual merits, and is commonly considered to be sex discrimination, which in some forms is illegal in some countries.”

And, a sociology reference site helpfully adds that sexism is:

“Similar to the dynamics of racism. Males are believed to be superior to females and when this belief is put into action it leads to females being treated as objects, the last to be hired, first to be fired, being paid less for equal work, etc.”

With the above definitions in mind, and drawing upon my own understanding of the subject (which has interested me for many decades – and had me “manning” the phones for the Women’s Campaign Fund 30 years ago in D.C.), I believe that sexism does not exist unless the actor/speaker has hatred or contempt for the other gender, or believes that one gender is superior to the other, or is attempting to maintain or impose stereotypes of masculinity on men or femininity on women in order to limit their freedom by restricting the gender to particular roles.

I hope we can all agree on at least a few basics:

  • Every mention of sex or gender, and everything sexual or sexy is not sexism (as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out at Slate.com in 2006, in a disagreement with lawyer feminists over a sexy woman in a clothing ad that appeared in a legal periodical; see our prior post).
  • Every mention of a general gender difference is not sexism. And,
  • Every outcome that is not favorable to a woman is not the product of sexism, nor is every outcome unfavorable to a male.

There are a few more things that seem obvious to me about sexism, the most important of which is that it is far too potent a charge to be made lightly by serious people or those who wish to be considered serious. This suggests to me that:

  • Gender Joshing is not sexism (absent the requisite hatred, superiority complex, or intent to stifle gender freedoms) — not when women kid men about their refusing to ask for directions, flatulence, or preoccupation with certain female body parts; and not when men (who, by the way, bond with their equals and friends through banter and kidding and poking fun) playfully mention stereotypes about parallel parking or periodic crankiness of women, or the like.
  • The gender-related rudeness, crudeness, or insecurities of a small minority of persons — much less their inadvertent lapse into jargon or turns-of-phrase that a minority of the other gender consider insulting, condescending or antiquated — should not be used to besmirch the actions of a much-broader group of people.
  • If similar behavior has been aimed at, or could be expected, when the other gender is in a similar situation, claiming sexism is rarely called for. [Thus, in reference to complaints about the current primary campaign, note that John Edwards has been ridiculed for his pretty face and hair; Al Gore's clothing got a lot of attention in 2000; males seeking the presidency have had their tears, ears, height and weight, and the timbre of their voices scrutinized and ridiculed; and Dennis Kucinich or Bill Richardson would surely have been urged to leave the race by now, if they were in second-place in the delegate count (with no real chance of catching up sans scandal), or appeared to be hurting the frontrunner's election chances with their campaign tactics.]

In sum, absent indications of hate, or superiority, or freedom-limiting stereotyping, it makes little sense to play the sexism card. That is especially true when people of good faith have indicated significant non-gender reasons for their actions; and when a reasonable person would have expected similar behavior if someone of the other gender had been involved. As I have stated before at this weblog:

Those who worry about the continuation of old stereotypes need to pay very close attention to the new stereotypes they may be creating by their actions and positions. Being seen as thin-skinned, humorless proponents of iffy legal analysis and bad attitudes is scarcely the way to win over the hearts or the minds of those who might still want to perpetuate the unwarranted stereotypes. Indeed, it might just lose you a few allies or make them wary to come to your assistance every time you “cry wolf.” Even the most open-minded and fair people can find it rather difficult to think of whiners [sore losers or spoilers] as equals.

maleSym femaleSym All this breathless punditry needs a bit of offsetting one-breath poetry, don’t you think? Here are a few senryu by members of our f/k/a family of haiku poets:

another argument unfolds the futon

………………. by W.F. Owen – Frogpond; Bottle Rockets

at the height
of the argument the old couple
pour each other tea

……… by George Swede – Almost Unseen (2000)

through the open door . . .
her smile doesn’t forgive
all my sins

. . . . by Randy Brooks – School’s Out (1999) doorFront

it’s pink! it’s purple!
sunset inspires

more bickering

………… by david giacalone – Frogpond Vol. XXVIII, #2 (2005); also, a haiga incorporating this poem

doorFrontN screen door between angry words

. . . . by Tom Painting – A New Resonance 2 & Frogpond XXI:1

sua sponte
her honor
catches me staring

. . . by dagosan

Finally, as promised above, here are major excerpts from “Sexism and the Clinton Campaign” (Liberal Values Blog, May 17, 2008), by Ron Chusid:

Sexism and the Clinton Campaign” (Liberal Values Blog, May 17, 2008), by Ron Chusid:

I doubt anyone would say that there is no sexism at all, but this is hardly the major factor why Clinton is losing. Clinton started out the race appearing to be the inevitable winner, leading by a considerable margin in all polls. She also had considerable success in early fund raising, and had a majority of superdelegates backing her until the past week. If Democrats were opposed to a woman president, they wouldn’t have given her this early support.

femaleSym maleSym The problem is not that Democrats do not want a woman nominee. They just do not want this woman for reasons having nothing to do with her gender. Clinton is wrong for the party based both upon her political views and her personal conduct. . . . Her campaign is all about grabbing power for herself, while failing to respect and support liberal values.

Rather than building a big tent as Obama has, bringing in new voters, Clinton seeks a party which represents the views of only a minority of Democrats.. . .

The real sexism in this race comes from women who support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman, even when she uses the same tactics they have been condemning when coming from George Bush. . . .

Despite Clinton’s adoption of both many political views and the tactics of the far right, Clinton apologists are willing to look the other way because she is a woman. Someday there will be a woman candidate who deserves to win the nomination. . . . There were many reasons for Democrats to reject Hillary Clinton regardless of how one feels about a woman president.

1 Comment

  1. David –
    What a one sided list of articles. If you wanted to stay away from the debate then why not excuse yourself all together?
    Of course there was sexism from the MSM. Olberman, Tucker, Anderson Cooper, etc…
    It stared us in the face every day between Clinton’s entry into the race last year and her graceful, gracious concession speech — from Tucker Carlson’s quip about Clinton making him want to cross his legs and Mike Barnicle’s comparison of Clinton to a “first wife standing outside a probate court,” to frequent references in both print and television media to her “cackle” and her cleavage.
    Perhaps you thought it was acceptable for Cooper and Donna Brazile didn’t say a word when a pundit called Senator Clinton a bitch on CNN’s 360 show. Would it have been OK for the pundit to call Mr. Anderson a ‘fag’ because of his lifestyle or Donna a ‘ngger’ because of her race? Or do consider those words racist and homophobic?
    Did sexism cause Senator Clinton to lose the campaign? Of course not. Was there sexism every day of the campaign in the print and TV media? Most certainly.
    Your ‘reality’ is skewed and simple minded.
    What are they teaching you at Harvard — you backwoods hillbilly? Surely not critical thinking.
    Fool!

    [Ed. Note: Blenko, You've left me almost speechless, but see my brief response in the post "this ol' hillbilly would rather nap than fight"]

    Comment by Blenko — June 19, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

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