Gloria, Hillary, and Feminism (of yesterday and today)
I watched the coverage of the New Hampshire primary last night, and in the wake of the Obama hype, meshed with harsh criticism and suspicion (unwarranted, in my opinion) about Hillary's display of emotion (a.k.a. humanness!) at a coffee shop in Portsmouth, I was impressed by -- and excited for -- Hillary's win.
I was also impressed by Gloria Steinem's Op-Ed that appeared in yesterday's NY Times. Entitled "Women are Never Front Runners," Steinem's article gives us pause to think more critically about the often down-played -- or flat-out dismissed -- gender barrier to achieving positions of power. At my women's liberal arts college (with its fierce commitment to multi-culturalism), I suppose I was confused enough to think that racism had become (or always was) more glaringly persistent than sexism, but I think Steinem's analysis is spot on: both racism and sexism are alive and well, but racism is just taken more seriously. As Steinem writes of the upcoming election:
"What worries me is that [Obama] is seen as unifying by his race, while [Hillary] is seen as divisive by her sex. What worries me is that [Hillary] is accused of ‘playing the gender card' when citing the old boys' club, while [Obama] is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations. What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn't."
Young women, in particular, have a tendency to be the enablers of sexism's "non-issue" standing. Steinem also says that some younger women "hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system" and that the dominant age cohort -- 50s and 60s -- of Hillary's female supporters suggests that women are the one group that grows more radical with age. I'm not sure Steinem's hypothesis holds true without further exploration, nor am I sure that a vote for Hillary Clinton offers a fair litmus test for "radicalism." I don't think it does. To be clear, I think women have a responsibility to embrace a feminism that is inextricable from an anti-violence, anti-racist, pro-GLBT rights, and pro-environmental advocacy orientation; feminism is not about supporting the woman because she's a woman. But I do think Steinem is right: younger women who never knew the enormity of gender inequalities in years preceding the feminist movement, nor felt a call to be liberated as profoundly as the pioneering women before them, are too quick to ignore the seriousness of sexism, and too naïve to think that men and women have an equal playing field. Just look at the amount of scrutiny Hillary Clinton has endured throughout her campaign, while Edwards and Obama have remained virtually uncriticized in the media, on YouTube, and in the blogosphere.
Interestingly, I've noticed even subtle differences in the ways in which my younger sisters (who aren't so much younger than me) are less comfortable calling sexism what it is, and are quick to cast aside its power. Deborah Siegel explores this, among other things, in her book Sisterhood Interrupted and on her blog Girl With Pen.
As was made abundantly clear at a Hillary conference in Salem on Monday, in which a man stood up and yelled "Iron My Shirt!" with an accompanying sign, sexism has not, in fact, disappeared. How interesting it is that some people have been so hasty to write off the incident as "staged." Would they be so quick to assume the calculation of a staged tactic had the incident been a racial slur at an Obama rally? I'm not so sure.