I’m at the “The Other Glass Ceiling: We had a woman candidate, but where are the women in the political media?” panel at WAM, featuring Mikki Halpin, Rebecca Traister, and Lisa Stone. I’m paraphrasing their comments here.
Rebecca Traister (of Salon.com): Even at Salon where there are a ton of female bylines, and where we get tons of hate mail complaining about “Can we end the Vagina Monologues,” on any given day there are still more male bylines than female bylines. That said, it’s improving, and the election helped. For example, Rachel Maddow would not have existed as she does right now four years ago. Even 18 months ago, I could not have conceived of the rise and popularity of Rachel Maddow.
Lisa Stone: I’m a big believer of mainstreaming of women’s voices. It’s extremely important for us to be able to host, hold and dissect our own debates. On many sites hosted by women, we are encouraged and able to air our own debates. That said, what I seek is mainstream achievement of women across the board, whether it’s in political office or whether it’s in mainstream media. It’s interesting to discuss whether or not we need to enlarge our description of what the punditocracy is, and what feminism is.
Rebecca: THe conversation about how we define feminism is one of my obsessions right now. The entrance of Sarah Palin into the presidential race really pushed at the definitions of feminism. The right has now taken a stake in what it calls “feminism,” and it’s the Sarah Palin brand of feminism. The question they’re going to ask is, “What, you can’t be a feminist without supporting reproductive rights?” and you’re going to say “No,” or whatever you way, and the response is going to be “So there’s a checklist you need to meet before you can be a feminist?” And that conversation is going to be very difficult. The mismanagement of the Clinton campaign and the sexism on the left really left a door open for the right to co-opt the language of feminism, and it’s that door that Sarah Palin walked through. That’s here, and it’s going going away.
Lisa: The question “Can you be a pro-life Republican and a feminist?” has been a question that’s been playing out around the BlogHer-sphere and the blogosphere generally.
Rebecca: One of the things that was so clear during the Clinton part of the campaign was that there were many many many instances and pervasive feelings of sexism aimed at Hillary Clinton. And the left — not only the political structure on the left, but the mainstream media on the left — there was a real reluctance to talk about it or acknowledge it, in part because the left has owned feminism, and there was a sense that to talk about it was going to feminize all of us, and we were all going to get Old Lady Cooties or whatever Hillary Clinton has. The right did the opposite — they were throwing around the word “sexism” like it was a gender studies class from Rick Santorum. The right was so enthusiastic in its embrace in feminism in that moment that it highlighted the silence from the left. It was terrifying to me — all the words and signifiers, whether it was the “You go, girl!” Sarah stuff or the use of accusations of sexism, it made me feel like, oh my god, what I believe in is being co-opted and it’s going to be used to legislate against what I believe in.
Lisa: The politics of identity and the semantics that have plagued the feminist movement for decades were brought into bas relief in this election.
Micki: At the same time that feminism was coming into the national discussion, there was a huge splintering of feminism. We finally thought that the third wave and the second wave had made up and could get alone, and then there was that Gloria Steinem editorial in the New York Times and it all blew up.
Lisa: It’s the extremes of any movement that tend to bubble up in the media. For example, last week at SXSW there was a panel on the election that was three men who had substantively covered the election, and Obama Girl. So it’s three people who are substantively discussing policy, and one person who everyone wants to see in a half-shirt. When you poll women, the majority of women say that they will vote based on a candidate’s track record and policies over gender. This is not news. And it’s even more true of younger women.
Question: What did you think of the “Sweetie” coverage, when Obama called a reporter “sweetie”?
Micki: I thought it was ridiculous.
Rebecca: I thought it was one of those media moments that was a result of over-heated discussion. People were very angry. And I don’t mean to suggest that small comments aren’t meaningful, but what I wrote at the time, the “sweetie” comment triggered some very old feelings. It’s one seat at a table that’s been made available, and all of a sudden all the people who have been kept away from the table are being invited to fight for it. I thought it was ridiculous that it got blown up into an example of some larger sexism on Barack Obama’s part. I did think that it was good that it started conversations about how men in power treat professional women, but it was a mistake to focus so much on one individual moment. The stuff that was seriously sexist, that was happening in the media, wasn’t being addressed. Then you get this one little thing that people can make into a personal war, which is what Geraldine Ferraro did — you want to talk about the sexism about Hillary Clinton, but when you twist it into an attack on one candidate who everyone is excited about, you lose the meaning of it.
Lisa: I think we need to hold our leaders accountable. What did Barack Obama do? He made a mistake, he shouldn’t have called her sweetie. And what did he do? He said he made a mistake, he said he shouldn’t have called her sweetie, and he called her an apologized. I didn’t see the Clinton campaign do that.
Question: What’s really changing in the mainstream media when it comes to gender? I don’t really see anything changing. If the candidates and the mainstream media were really surprised by women’s interest in the last election, what has changed? How do we get it to change?
Lisa: I see their economics changing. The economics are forcing mainstream media outlets to change their approach. That said, there is a real opportunity to give publishing tools to women, and to break the male hegemony on newspaper op/ed pages. The cream also rises in the blogosphere.
Rebecca: More women are having more of an impact in the online political conversations. Cream never totally rises — there’s always someone who’s really crappy. But below that, there is a layer of people who are well-respected and who do great work.
Question: Is the dividing line in feminism now the abortion issue?
Micki: I don’t think so. A few years ago I would have said that you have to be pro-choice to be a feminist, and there’s still a large part of me that feels that way. But there’s a movement now that emphasizes that it’s necessary to have a conversation.
Lisa: Who gets to decide the answer to that question? For a very long time, people have advocated turning over those hard questions to leaders like Gloria Steinem. I would argue that now, the oligarchy running the various leftist women’s organizations don’t get to decide when we all have blogs and votes.
Rebecca: I also think that for a long time historically, there have been differences in priorities in various feminist communities. Perhaps choice has been the priority in the Gloria Steinem segment, and in upper-middle-class feminist circles. But there have always been huge groups of women on the left, huge active feminist groups, for whom choice issues are not the priority. Even on the left, there has been a long-time questioning of the centrality of choice to feminism. There’s an argument to be made that the Gloria Steinem segment of feminism has exerted the most power and segmented the most groups, but it’s also the easiest to slam — we can write it off as “single-issue” voting blocks and just throw her out. So it’s complicated. I believe that we all really have to think about how to talk about these issues, because choice is something that’s going to be legislated about, and we have to think about how to talk about it honestly and intelligently — it’s an issue that is going to impact the health and the bodies of half the population.
Lisa: I love the point that we need to get over the concept that women have to agree in order to move forward. If there’s anything that WAM can do, it’s figuring out a way to get comfortable with disagreeing and still see progress.
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