Women Candidates Are Stronger When They Fight Sexism
23 Apr 2018
In Jonathan Chait’s New York Intelligencer article cautioning women “not to play the victim card” when running as 2020 presidential candidates, doesn’t he see that a man telling a woman how she should present herself to the American people is in itself sexist? Why does he get to instruct her? What white male has ever had to deal with gender issues on the national stage? Even Chait’s opening premise is incorrect. He starts by noting the commanding presence of Kamala Harris, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as she cross examined AG Jeff Sessions:
“Harris so flustered her prey that his former Republican Senate colleagues came to his defense…”
Fellow Senators protected Sessions by interrupting and doing their best to stifle her inquiry. But if Sessions was her “prey,” Chait’s characterization implies Harris is a “predator” – a negative characterization of women – and that she is dangerous or conniving. Chait also states Harris “mercilessly dismantled” Sessions. No, she’s not “predatory” or “merciless”, but an experienced prosecutor and U.S. Senator who wasn’t going to take guff from the Attorney General, who was dissembling and carrying on like a flustered school child for effect. ‘See? The big, bad woman is being mean to me. I’m nervous.’
Chait then objected to feminists who took issue with the double standard of a woman Senator’s treatment when no man would be so disrespected. If you want to change bias, you first need to call it out.
In Chait’s article, we see the woman’s conundrum – damned if you’re strong and damned if you complain about how you’re treated for it. Yet it has been proven in political races across the country that when women running for office fight back hard against sexist attacks, they fare better than if they did not, so I question Chait’s advice that women should grin and bear it, instead focusing only on their strengths.
Mr. Chait should respect that we can multitask, noting that Senator Harris was doing a great job while calling attention to the inappropriate behavior of men who were intimidated by her.
Also, recall that when Senator Elizabeth Warren stood up to read Coretta Scott King’s letter denouncing Jeff Sessions confirmation as AG, she was promptly shut down by Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Her male colleague read the same letter uninterrupted. These Senators clearly have an objection not just to the content, but to the sex of the person doing the speaking. If that isn’t sexism, I don’t know what is.
No, Mr. Chait, ignoring it or putting up with it isn’t going to make it go away. It sure hasn’t worked so far.
Until 2009, women couldn’t use the Senate pool because male Senators insisted on swimming naked. What century are we in again? Should that not have been challenged because women would look weak for protesting?
In 2014, Mitch McConnell called his female Senate opposition “an empty dress.” You think letting that stand would have improved KY Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ chances?
Revisiting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, she was never “weak” or “bad,” but was constantly derided as “inauthentic,” told to mind her “tone” and smile more. All these are tropes reserved for women. NBC’s Chuck Todd had the temerity to say Hillary was “too prepared.” We could use her excellent preparation right about now.
For a man to tell a woman she is not allowed to call out such bias in itself impedes her road to a level playing field.
Men in media (and complicit females like Andrea Mitchell) are used to being in charge, painting a destructive narrative designed to keep moving the goal posts so women can never catch up. It is up to women and fair-minded men to ensure that men like Chris Matthews, Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough, Sean Hannity, Cenk Uygur, Matt Lauer, Josh Barro, Charlie Rose, and yes, Jonathan Chait, do not define the conversation, or dictate how any woman presents herself.
No doubt certain men were raised with a bias against a woman in charge and it is that sensitivity which Chait addresses. The answer is not to turn a blind eye to it simply because it’s ingrained. Change only happens via challenge to existing belief systems and behaviors.
Mr. Chait implied that female candidates call out sexism and misogyny to gain attention and support from progressive circles (“Playing to the most popular tropes in progressive circles on social media”). This ignores that a good deal of sexism leveled at women comes from the Left. His statement also implies that decrying unfair treatment is a ploy, rather than a fight for justice. That too calls into question a woman’s honorable intent, does it not? There’s that pesky “conniving” trope again.
As a woman, as soon as you accept the false premise, you’re toast. As long as we keep allowing sexist men to define how we may present ourselves in the world, we will always lose because they’ll keep changing the rules to suit themselves.
Women’s lot in positions of power will never improve if we turn ourselves into pretzels to fit in with tired sexist tropes. Antiquated thinking is what’s wrong here.
Obviously, the first thing a woman candidate should focus on are her strengths. But we must also keep calling out unjust behavior when we see it – and call it out hard – so that those perpetuating it crawl back into their hidey-holes. Otherwise, you will never see a woman president and we’ll have to keep on acquiescing to white male mediocrity.