“The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price… The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future.”
-Abigail Scott Duniway, suffrage organizer in the Pacific Northwest
The latest year of the woman quickly morphed into the year of quitting, didn’t it? I blame the neosexism I’ve written about before, that resurgence of masculine vengeance that rears its ugly head any time women try and succeed in making inroads into what are traditionally considered “boys’ clubs.” Politics certainly falls in that category, what with approximately 85% of the field being staked out by penised-Americans.
Journalism is no better and these two things are related. The media is the boxing ring in which many of these fights get aired. We certainly saw that with Hillary Clinton, and as with several other women, she is herself saying she’ll exit stage left at the end of this term. Though there has been a broad awakening of the feminine mind to the realities of sexist discourse and actions in our political arena, the effects of three solid years of unchained sexism and misogyny have had their effect: Women are quitting, or not even trying, in droves, which threatens the hard-won ground we women have already staked out for ourselves.
So who are these women and why did they quit? Is my thesis correct that it is the influence of sexism from powerful masculine constituencies that have driven them out? Or are we to take the gentler road to judgment and discuss the “personal choices” of these women? Let’s take a look at each case study to see if we can answer these and other questions.
Sarah Palin is a trendsetter, there’s no doubt about that. So there’s little surprise that she was the first to give up in what I’m cheekily referring to as the year of the quitting. After priming the electoral pump for more than 2 years, she made it official in early October that she would not be running for president. Palin has been under sexist siege for as long as she’s been on the national stage, but she’s made quite a bit of money off it too. She has been able to insulate herself to a degree with this wealth, and really had nothing left to lose so far as the media was concerned.
So, having amassed a small fortune, built a powerful constituency, and learned the hazards of the media, she decided not to even get near the boxing ring? Why? And what message does this send to women not yet in sight of the ring? Is she hoping for a win down the road? Perhaps. But I can’t even begin to express the disappointment of women (and quite a few men) across the country who looked to her as a role model for fighting back against unfairness, for not letting the fools succeed in shutting her up, only to find, yes, they did succeed in shutting her up. And in the eyes of some, she let them. That’s a terrible blow to her image and to the more moderate branches of her fanbase. She’ll have to put real clout up next time if she is to succeed.
Michelle Bachmann quit pretty early on in her presidential campaign, just after Iowa. Why? Could it be that she was hit with sexist attacks about her headaches, ridiculously calling into her question her ability to lead (as if no presidents ever had health problems–hell, Garfield was in a coma for two months and Wilson stroked out at the end of his presidency)? Or maybe it was the way she was rhetorically beat up for accurately reporting John Wayne’s Iowa connections, but which several men in the media deliberately misconstrued her meaning to apply to the serial killer John Wayne Gacy? Maybe it was the way the mostly male media hounded her for “gaffes” that were no worse than the “gaffes” of men in the race, which were not reported on as predominantly. Maybe it was the label “crazy eyes” and all the pictures those mostly male editors chose to post on every article of her that appeared. Or maybe it was just the way so many people, buying the media hype without thinking it through clearly, just accepted despite all evidence to the contrary that she was “stupid.”
This last may be the most offensive. Anytime a man wants to disempower a woman he has two immediate choices to make about the misogynistic arsenal strapped to his back: Do I call her crazy or stupid?
I expect to take the most flack for including Gabrielle Giffords. The woman was shot in the head, after all, by a mentally deranged lunatic with no discernible political leanings. If anyone had a right to quit, it’s her, right? I mean, personal health in the wake of a tragedy like this is what “personal choice” is all about, yes? I’m willing to entertain that her decision was the best one for her and her family.
What I’m not willing to do is ignore the message this decision sends, because it sends a powerful one: that violence is all it takes to stop a woman in her tracks. This is a disastrous message to be sending, especially at this time, when sexism and misogyny have been ramped up to such a degree that we are now going backwards in terms of women’s progress. What Giffords has is an opportunity like no other politician today: The country owes it to her, because of her immense suffering, to wait her healing out. So why would she quit?
In interviews, two things stand out: her continued recovery, and her grief over the people who were killed that day. Both are understandable, and my discussion here is not meant as a personal judgment of her choices, but rather an exploration of the implications of them because of her status as a pubic figure. Yet it’s difficult to reconcile what I know about the women from history who faced enormous violence for the choices they wanted to make, choices that led directly to Rep. Giffords getting the opportunity she did to serve her country as an elected official, and Giffords’ choice. The country has plenty of time for her to heal, and she could easily win re-election just based on what she’s gone through. No one on the right side of the aisle would dare run a serious campaign against her. She may have been the only unbeatable candidate in 2012.
The area of violence against women is one of the most important issues in the feminist constellation of issues. Women will never make the inroads they want to make as long as they are willing to accept violence as a way to force them out of the game. This is something that Alice Paul knew very well, and the reason she created the Silent Sentinels, so they could absorb that vitriol & violence in public and change public perception of it because it could no longer be hidden.
This is where Rep. Giffords could have done her most important work–especially because I believe she was targeted because she was a woman. Instead, she’s chosen to accept her party’s line that it was narrow partisan political discourse that drove a madman with ideas on the political spectrum as diverse and wide ranging as birds on the planet to target her. It was Sarah Palin’s fault. Sadly, Giffords has complicated her partisanized rhetoric of victimization with a can’t-do attitude that will most likely serve as a default model for women in politics for years. The end message is: Just shoot her; if you don’t kill her, she’ll quit. Win!
That may seem harsh, but it is the perception of some in the public, and certainly this message is not lost on men in our culture who believe that by any means necessary is an acceptable political approach. While I understand and support her right to make her own decisions, I also think that there is an incredible missed opportunity here due to a dishonest, misleading, and sexist political frame. Not one she created, mind you, but she is buying it.
But of course it’s not just elected office from which women are being driven by the neosexism unleashed by the Obama campaign and now so accepted in our culture. Women can’t even be allowed to make choices about what to do in positions of power without being challenged and drummed right out of the business. Take a look at Karen Handel, former Susa G. Komen executive, who was the favorite scapegoat for the Komen-Planned Parenthood debacle. After a couple of weeks of being hounded by the press over withholding a $400,000 grant from Planned Parenthood, Handel resigned after media bigwigs targeted her and framed her as the driver of the choice to break with PP.
In her first interview, she offered a rebuttal, suggesting this is ridiculous point of view, saying:
“…to suggest that I had the sole authority is just absurd. The process was vetted. The policies were vetted at all the appropriate levels in the organization.”
But let’s take a closer look at that interview, shall we?
She uses a keyword: Coercion. This is exactly what’s driving this dynamic. She makes the right argument, that Komen had every right to pursue whatever business plan they chose and which they think may benefit the organization. However, she also clearly, and sadly, caves to the coercion. She even declined a severance package! How many executive men would do that?
From Sarah Palin to Gabrielle Giffords to Karen Handel, women of all political stripes are under attack in a culture that has ratcheted up sexism in the process and wake of electing the nation’s first African American president. What does that say about us as a nation? Even as I write this article exploring the ways that sexism is working to shut women out of positions of power, the nation’s Assistant Sexist-in-Chief, million dollar donor Bill Maher is in the New York Times telling folks to keep it up with the sexism and if you don’t like it, just tune it out. He’s telling his fans to stop apologizing about it, already. The show is over, the curtains are down, we can quit excoriating this crap and resume our normal operating procedures.
Except we can’t, because as you can see, there are real world effects to the flourishing of sexist rhetorical attacks and the dismissive attitudes of universally privileged men in the press, and the sliver of women chosen to compliment them. This is the media today and it’s an embarrassing representation of our country and in no way resembles the much-lauded fourth estate role media should play. We must keep beating this drum, talking about it, confronting people over it, and refusing generally to remain silent. And as the opening quote suggests, we owe it to our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, etc. to fight this fight for them. We owe it to the women of today to let them know that we have their backs and we expect them not to give up, not to let this phenomenon work, and to plan ways to disempower the dynamic of sexism.
Cross-posted from P&L.