Here’s what happens when USA Today tries to write from a feminist point of view: you end up with a headache.
Women are more kind and nurturing than men. They are natural altruists, placing the common good — including education, health and the environment — ahead of their narrow personal interests. And that’s why we need a woman president. Right?
Wrong. We don’t need a female president, any more than we need a male one. Instead, we need to jettison the gender stereotypes that block half the population — the female half, that is — from participating equally in our politics.
Now, unfortunately I don’t know enough about Jonathan Zimmerman to know what he’s trying to do here. If I give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s trying to promote gender equality but believes that the general American public, particularly the audience for USA Today, isn’t going to buy an even-remotely feminist message without a conservative version of what “equality” means and a healthy dose of gender-stereotype reinforcement. If I take him simply for what’s written in this article, he’s a clueless guy who thinks that he believes in “equality” but has never set foot in a Gender Politics 101 class.
First, he spends three paragraphs explaining how the current dilemma of so few women in politics is really the fault of early women’s rights crusaders, and then one half-hearted paragraph saying “oh, well I guess that it’s a little bit of our fault, too” — maybe.
“So long as a fireside and a home exist, so long must woman exercise a boundless power over the destiny of man,” declared an 1838 advice manual, “A Voice to Youth.” Whereas men ruled the public world via laws and armies, women influenced the private realm “by persuasion, by kindness, by gentleness and affection, and by a soothing and forgiving spirit.”
In fact, women participated in all of the great political reforms of the early 19th century: temperance, anti-slavery, the quest for common schools and more. They gave speeches, wrote broadsides and circulated petitions. But they did so as women, vowing to make the nation more “home-like” by infusing it with their distinct domestic qualities. And they used high-minded moral appeals, of course, not the sleazy machinations of elections.
In the early 20th century, women used a similar claim to win the vote. Less selfish and corruptible than men, women would “sweep away” the vice and bribery of boss politics. And their ballots would usher in a new era of “municipal housekeeping,” whereby government provided social services for immigrants, workers and children.
But the very same characteristics that qualified women for politics — fairness, empathy and altruism — seemed to disqualify them as politicians. As the United States grew into a world power, Americans wanted leaders who were bold, tough and decisive. And they associated those attributes with men, not with women.
The fact that, by his own admission, this type of strategy dates all the way back to the 1800s, and the fact that we’ve undergone more than one feminist revolution since then doesn’t seem to count for much. Nor does the fact that, while certainly, many early feminists really did believe this kind of essentialist crap, a lot of them probably used it because they knew that it had the best chances of success, not because they thought it was true. Nor does he mention that even if they did think it was true, we ought to know better now.
Then he uses phrases like “gender assumptions,” briefly giving the idea that he understands that sex and gender are not the same thing, only to follow it up by using “man/masculine” and “woman/feminine” interchangeably:
Indira Gandhi governed India for 14 tumultuous years; nearby Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have elected women leaders. Eleven nations were led by women by the end of 2006, ranging from Germany and Ireland to Liberia and Mozambique. But not the USA, where our longstanding gender assumptions block female politicians from rising to the top. Such ideas have received a new boost from contemporary multiculturalism, which sometimes ascribes a distinct culture to women. So if a woman leader acts like a woman, she isn’t tough enough to be president; and if she is tough enough, she’s simply acting like a man.
And our kids are watching. After serving eight years as Iceland’s president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir quipped that some children in her country thought that you had to be a woman to hold the office.
In the USA, you still have to be a man — or behave like one. And you always will, so long as we continue to teach our own children that gender differences make the difference in U.S. politics.
And like I said, I get it. The typical USA Today reader has probably never even heard of Judith Butler, let alone read her, nor do they probably pay any attention to her more contemporary peers. Sadly, to most Americans, sex and gender still probably mean the same thing. But you’d think that in an article that is supposedly about how we have to stop relying on gender assumptions, he might, you know, point out that they’re not.
I keep coming back to those first two paragraphs, though. They got under my skin the very second I read them, and I can’t seem to move past them.
What Zimmerman either believes or is pandering to, here, is the idea that if we stop paying attention to gender, it will go away, everything will be happy, and then the best man . . . I mean person! Person! . . . will win.
Because this strategy has worked so well for race, hasn’t it?
POC bloggers have been trying to explain for some time now why the concept of racial “color-blindness” is both insulting and unhelpful. You know what I’m talking about — you’ve either heard others say, or have said yourself, something along the lines of “I don’t see race” or “we’re all people, why can’t we just forget about race?” and “the people who keep bringing race up are the real racists.”
Many white people love this approach. I think that this can be traced back to a few things. The first is that people who are (usually willfully) ignorant of racism and race issues think that acknowledging race is the same as racism (it’s not). The second is that it’s an easy way out, without having to deal with the fact that racism exists or face up to the fact that they themselves are racist. It’s a great system for white people, and a pretty shitty one for everyone else.
Why? Well, because it’s a lie. Firstly, everyone person with sight can differentiate between skin colors, including actually color-blind people (and, as I’ve seen many disability-rights activists point out, to use the terms “color-blind” and “blind” to refer to people who see perfectly fine is pretty insulting). Secondly, racism is about a lot more than skin color — it’s also about actual and perceived cultural differences, and the fact that we have set up a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” cultures.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, “color-blindness” allows white people to ignore racism and pretend that we’re “all the same” when that’s not how the world works. If you don’t see race, it doesn’t exist. It robs people of color of their very real experiences with racial prejudice and also works to silence their voices. It makes talking about race and racial discrimination, which is very important, something that in itself is seen as racist. The “color-blind” doctrine frowns upon open acknowledgments and celebrations of diversity, and it allows white people to go through their lives while ignoring and participating in racism, all the while denying that no way, they can’t possibly be racist, because they don’t even notice or talk about race.
It seems to me that Zimmerman is suggesting a similar worldview regarding sex and gender. Of course, in a perfect world, these things wouldn’t matter. Hillary Clinton’s sex and gender would be just about as significant a feature as the fact that Rudy Giuliani is short. But we don’t live in that perfect world. In fact, we life in a highly imperfect and highly gendered world. To act like gender doesn’t exist, with facts to the contrary absolutely everywhere, benefits men and men only. To act as though it is irrelevant whether or not we have a female president is also a huge lie, and I say that as someone who is not currently backing Clinton for the presidency. Teaching your kids about the importance of equality and treating male and female children the same is just the right thing to do. Telling your kids that gender doesn’t matter is a harmful lie that doesn’t set them up for the real world or for a future of critical thinking.
But it’s the argument that Americans swallow. In the same way that it’s taboo to talk about race and racism (unless it benefits whites), it’s also taboo to talk about sex/gender and sexism (unless it benefits men). Just look at all of the recent hullabaloo over comments about sexism that Hillary Clinton didn’t even make. Why? Well, because she had the nerve to mention sex at all, and to hint at the fact that a huge majority of federal politicians are men. If we’re going to support “gender-blindness,” this is exactly the kind of system that we’d be supporting. When we can’t talk about sex and gender, we can’t talk about very large and real aspects of women’s lives.
And though this is a nightmare for us, I’m sure that it will work just fine for everybody else.