Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the witch, the bitch, and the ditz

The possible selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State reflects well on President-elect Obama, who appears to be taking seriously the idea of building a National Coalition, including Democratic and perhaps even Republican rivals, rather than a narrowly partisan government. Less positively, Hillary's reappearance, together with Gov. Sarah Palin's round of post-election interviews, puts the issue of gender and the presidential elections back into public view. It is not a pretty picture.

In an article in New York Magazine Amanda Fortini describes Clinton and Palin as examples of two paradigms, the "bitch" and the "ditz" (her words), neither of which reflects well on voters' ability to judge women candidates on their abilities rather than their personal characteristics. I myself was struck by the differing reactions to race and gender in the campaign. Race seems to be an issue for 10 or 20 percent of the population but fading in importance for the rest. By contrast gender is always there: sometimes as a positive, sometimes a negative, but never irrelevant to the perception of the candidate in question. In the New Hampshire primary a man waved a sign at Clinton that read, "Iron My Shirt." At a McCain-Palin rally a protester carried a revealing photo of Palin with a caption reading, "Vote With Your Head," and by implication, not with other parts of your anatomy. Can one seriously imagine equivalent posters being carried regarding Obama's race? Would even the most conservative observer approve of this?

I never thought I would say this, but we may be forced to admit that gender prejudice is deeper and more intractable than that related to race, and that Americans are no less, perhaps more, subject to it than other nationalities. The prejudice seems especially strong in cases, like Palin, where the woman is thought to combine political with sexual power or attraction. Nor are elites liberal or otherwise immune to it. At my law school female professors frequently receive evaluations that discuss their physical appearance; blogs comment on which professors are "hot" and which aren't. People obviously feel comfortable making these comments in a way that they would not with respect to race, religion, and so forth.

Part of the problem may be Americans' (or at least American men's) prevailing view of sex as a commodity provided by women to men, which raises inevitable fears of the combination of political and sexual power. In Europe there is a somewhat greater tendency to think of the sexual act as mutual and to speak of "parity" rather than "equality" between the genders, a subtle distinction but one which appears to allow for female participation without compromising gender differences. Europe has its own problems on this score as a quick perusal of the French or Italian newspapers reveals. But Britain, Germany, Israel, and every country on the Indian subcontinent has had a female leader while the U.S. seems no closer: maybe we have something to learn from them on this score?


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