Liveblogging WAM: Afternoon Session

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 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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12 comments for “Liveblogging WAM: Afternoon Session

  1. March 28, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Thanks for these updates. I hope that WAM is going well for you. I know Marcella (Abyss2Hope) was very excited to be presenting there. I got to meet her in person before she left and she told me what she was looking forward to at WAM.

  2. March 29, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Regarding whether there’s a checklist for being a feminist, I think the answer is “Yes. It’s a very simple one; it has only one item. To be a feminist, you have to honestly believe that women are full human beings with full human rights.”

    The choice issue follows directly from that. It is a human right not to be enslaved. Therefore a feminist opposes the enslavement of women. Therefore a feminist opposes the enslavment of women to produce unwanted babies.

    Can you be a feminist and promote the enslavement of women to produce unwanted babies? The only way I can see that happening is with someone who hasn’t thought through the implications of banning or restricting abortion.

  3. mshannah
    March 29, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Wow, the idea of a definition of feminism that doesn’t include a commitment to choice and reproductive rights is really worrying. And to what women fighting for their rights does choice ‘not matter’? Maybe this is an American cultural/religious thing that I just don’t get.
    Finally, surely what defines whether choice is an important feminist issue is logic, and how choice fits into everything else and impacts on the ability to have actual equality. Not votes or blogs…

  4. Dan in Denver
    March 29, 2009 at 10:12 am

    So Cat, does that mean that (some of) the founding mothers of the modern feminist movement in the US weren’t actually feminists? Because some of them were quite anti-abortion.

    This becomes complicated because if you believe that a fetus should have human rights, you come down in one place on the “enslavement” question, and if you believe that a fetus should NOT have those rights, you come down somewhere else. But feminism qua feminism doesn’t really answer that question – other ideologies, moralities, experiences, do. Feminism tells us that human beings shouldn’t be oppressed, but doesn’t define human being.

  5. mikki
    March 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Argh, just lost a whole post.

    Cat and Hannah, I find this conversation very difficult as well. But I don’t think that discussing the range of women’s feelings and responses to abortion dictates that those of us who are committed to protecting choice will lose ground. For me it means listening a bit to people I am used to shouting at and shouting about. I don’t know who decides the answer to this.

    Lisa said that it is the extremes of any movement who end up becoming its public face, which I think it so important. I remember doing a story back in the 80s (I am old!) when Operation Rescue was trying to shut down clinics in Los Angeles and both sides were equally paranoid, angry, and scary.

    I appreciate that pro-voice is suggesting to me that maybe sometimes I should check my knee-jerk response and support a framework that is open to supporting a more complex approach. <–was that gobbeledygook? I think it makes sense.

    Jenny wrote a great story that might be of interest:

    Jill, thanks for blogging this. I notice you took out all my swear words!

  6. March 29, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Ha, sorry Mikki — I also spelled your name wrong in my haste. I wasn’t able to type fast enough to quote everyone directly, so hopefully my paraphrasing did justice to what was actually said. Feel free to correct where I left things out or inaccurately represented a point.

  7. mikki
    March 29, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    You did great! I missed WAM last year, but have been in previous years–really amazing this year to see all the liveblogging and twittering. (A little unnnerving, too.)

  8. mikki
    March 29, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    And Dan, I don’t think it is so simple as to whether you consider the fetus to be a human being or not. In some religious traditions they talk about the point when the fetus gets a soul, for example. Obviously that issue a big part of a lot of people’s ideologies,and has dominated the framing of the conversation here both socially and legally, but I think it is really problematic to be drawing an arbitrary line at certain places, say the second trimester. We fight to protect third trimester abortions but the women who have them have to fit a certain mold–it was a desperately wanted child, the mother will die a horrible death, etc. I personally feel pretty OK with third trimester abortions for any reasons, which I know many people would not go for. Obviously I would hope and work to reduce them because they are a big medical intervention, etc. But personally for me, when I say I am pro choice I really mean any choice.

    I am way too talky today, sorry

  9. March 30, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Dan writes: This becomes complicated because if you believe that a fetus should have human rights, you come down in one place on the “enslavement” question, and if you believe that a fetus should NOT have those rights, you come down somewhere else.

    Could you please explain to me why you think there is a “human right” to draw your nutrients from, and deposit your wastes into, someone else’s bloodstream without her consent?

    I’m happy to give a fetus all the rights we would give a born person with similar capabilities. That just doesn’t include the right to enslave someone to hijack her metabolism.

  10. Dan in Denver
    March 30, 2009 at 8:05 am

    I don’t want to get into a derailing argument with you on this thread, Cat, but suffice it to say that for some feminists, the moral status of the little parasite makes a difference in their abortion position, one that isn’t as cut and dried as you might wish. That’s all.

  11. March 30, 2009 at 10:45 am

    It’s perfectly okay with me for them to make the choice for themselves.

    When they want to make the choice for all women (and only for women), I start to wonder if they really believe other women are full human beings with full human rights. And if they don’t, as far as I’m concerned, they’re not feminists.

    Other people may have a different definition of feminist, that leads to having a different checklist (to the extent that one item is a checklist), or no checklist at all, but that’s how I see the intersection of feminism, choice, human rights, and checklists.

    That’s all.

  12. TBD
    April 1, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    It is very sad to see what women have done to themselves over the past couple of years. After spending months trying to rationalize while it was OK to jump ship for the cute guy (even though everyone who thought above the level of cable news pundit agreed that Clinton and Obama were virtually the same candidate on the issues, except for health care) and be liberally fashionable, many feminists then spent the next few months trashing Sarah Palin. I am no Palin fan, please don’t confuse that, but the way Sarah Palin’s voice, looks and overall ability to be competent not in the sense of being a leader of the country, but to just put one foot in front of the other, is amazing.

    Now we have Michelle Obama, who is great. But it is sad that we are seeing countless stories about the way the woman in the White House dresses instead of her policy. I think the way Obama is being treated as this reincarnation of Jackie, and the way her press office is gladly engaging this coverage, is pretty fucking sad. Why can’t she be the tough, smart woman she is without having to go on Oprah and say inane things like, “My happiness is tied to how I feel about myself.”

    I guess the White House is convinced that she’ll come off threatening if she acts like the professional, policy-oriented person she has been. Like a Hillary Clinton II. And it seems like mainstream feminists have all agreed, the only thing worse than that would be to appear as a complete idiot, buxom lady like Sarah Palin.

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