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Feminists Reflect on the Election

If there’s one thing the 2008 election has made clear, it’s that the feminism isn’t dead yet. It’s easy to assume that we live in an enlightened “post-feminist” society—nobody wants to believe that we’ve made no progress towards gender equality since the 1970s. And while it is certainly true that women have had an increasing role in public life, that our options have increased to encompass any number of occupations formerly reserved for men, and that blatant discrimination on the basis of gender is no longer nearly as acceptable as it once was, it’s also clear that sexism isn’t exactly a relic of the past.

What constitutes “sexism” is still a matter of contentious debate. Its manifestations are many and varied. Right wing pundits who launched a great deal of gender-based vitriol at Senator Hillary Clinton during her presidential run were quick to decry what they saw as biased attacks against Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and white feminists who felt the need to support Clinton against media slurs haven’t been quite so quick to rush to the aid of prospective First Lady Michelle Obama.

The most straightforward example from this election that sexism persists is in the treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton. When she began her presidential campaign, it wasn’t Clinton’s policies or professional record that brought her under scrutiny, but rather a meticulous deconstruction of her body, choice in clothing, and hair. A July 2007 article in the Washington Post infamously memorialized the fleeting appearance of the Senator’s cleavage on the Congress floor, dedicating a full 800 words to the subject and its hypothetical impact on Clinton’s presidential campaign.

It’s hard to imagine the same kind of commentary leveled at a male politician. Says Melissa McEwan, founder of the progressive blog Shakesville (where she is running a “Sexism Watch” for Clinton, Obama, and Palin), and regular writer for the Guardian, “[Mrs. Clinton’s] gender certainly subjected her to a different kind of scrutiny in addition to the usual scrutiny a male candidate faces. What she wore, how she wore it, her hairstyle, her make-up, her voice, what kind of wife she is, what kind of mother she is—all the stuff that women must face every day was piled on top of the scrutiny of her policies, debate skills, and general political acumen.”

It’s impossible to say exactly how much of an impact Clinton’s treatment by the media had in determining the outcome of her campaign, but McEwan believes that sexist treatment had a measurable real-world impact. “When prominent political journalists are sticking devil horns on her image and calling her a she-devil, naturally that’s going to reverberate—whether it makes people more sympathetic toward her, or more hostile toward her. Either way, it’s extremely unusual for people to see something like that and feel neutral about it.”

Gloria Steinem herself noted the difference in treatment between Senators Obama and Clinton in a New York Times op-ed back in January. “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life,” she argued, “Whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” Her column reflected the thoughts of many women during the Democratic primary anxious to finally see a woman in the White House. Being careful to emphasize her support for either Democratic candidate and her commitment to fighting racism as well as sexism, Steinem nonetheless felt that “the sex barrier [is] not taken as seriously as the racial one,” and that “anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects ‘only’ the female half of the human race.”

Of course, racism affects both women and men of color. In a response to Steinem’s column, AlterNet writer Sally Kohn asserted, “[It’s] probably true that if Barack Obama were bi-racial and a woman, he might not be where he is today. But Ms. Steinem neglected to note that if Hillary Clinton were an African-American woman, she probably wouldn’t be either. It goes to show not that one form of oppression is more persistent than the other but that both run deep and strong in our country, as witnessed most powerfully where they intersect.”

Gender-based attacks on Michelle Obama have necessarily taken a racially-tinged angle. She’s been portrayed as a black radical in numerous articles and on the cover of the New Yorker. Fox News has even referred to her as Barack Obama’s “baby mama,” and Bill O’Reilly has railed against her as an “angry black woman.” McEwan explains, “It’s frequently very difficult to extricate the racism from the sexism in attacks on women of color. Imus’ infamous assault on the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team is the perfect example of this concept: How can you possibly disentangle the racism from the sexism and/or the sexism from the racism of ‘nappy-headed hos’?”

For women of color, these attitudes are not unfamiliar. Sophia Nelson, president of iask, Inc., an organization for professional black women, writes in a July 2008 column for the Washington Post, “Sad to say, but what Obama has undergone, though it’s on a national stage and on a much more prominent scale, is nothing new to professional African American women. We endure this type of labeling all the time. We’re endlessly familiar with the problem Michelle Obama is confronting—being looked at, as black women, through a different lens from our white counterparts, who are portrayed as kinder, gentler souls who somehow deserve to be loved and valued more than we do.”

Some are quick to charge that white feminists have not done enough to counter the sexism endured by Obama during the course of the election. Writes Jessica Valenti, founder of the blog Feministing and author of several books including Full Frontal Feminism, in a column for the Guardian, “When Clinton was still campaigning I received daily emails from various women’s organizations, furious about the way the media was treating their candidate. These days, however, my inbox is fairly empty. And the press releases and action alerts I do get about Michelle Obama seem to lack the outrage and fervour of past Clinton-focused statements.”

Charges of sexism and feminists failing to protect their own become even more complicated when conservative Sarah Palin is thrown into the mix. After attacking Senator Clinton and Michelle Obama on numerous occasions, conservative media figures seemed to suddenly discover the existence of sexism. Political commentator Dick Morris decried the focus on Palin’s pregnant daughter Bristol during the Republican National Convention, claiming that “a man would never have had to go through this,” and that it reflected a “deep sexism that runs through our society.” Yet in November 2007 he mocked Clinton’s claims of experiencing sexism in her campaign, stating, “When a woman wants to be President, she shouldn’t complain based on gender. I’m going to take my toys and go home because the big boys are picking on me. What happens when the boys in the Middle East or the boys who run Russia or the boys who run China start picking on you? Are we going to have a President of the United States saying the boys are picking on me? This is what Hillary always does. Whenever she gets under fire, she retreats behind the apron strings.”

Jill Filipovic, writer for the Huffington Post and member of the blog Feministe, expresses her frustration with this attitude. “It sure is interesting to see conservatives adopt the banner of feminism now that Sarah Palin is on the ticket,” she writes. “I can’t help but shake my head every time I hear or read one of them say, ‘Had she been a man…’ — simply because conservatives have spent the past century or so totally dismissing that line of argument. I guess when it’s a woman on their side — you know, the side that wants to do away with most of the gains that women in this country have made, and that traditionally shames women like Sarah Palin who are ‘careerists’ — it’s valid. And for not offering our full-throated support to Sarah Palin — a woman who is anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-education, pro-gun — we’re the hypocrites.”

At the same time, she notes, “It is hypocritical, I think, to speculate about Palin’s choices in having her children […] when we would never do the same to a progressive female politician (and let’s be honest, we wouldn’t).”

Even if Palin is conservative and her policies anti-feminist, her campaign has most certainly been made possible due to the feminist movement. For this reason alone, feminists and progressives should respect her political accomplishments, even while acknowledging the perfectly valid grievances they have with her politics. And conservatives who would defend Palin against perceived sexism would probably do well to avoid accusations of hypocrisy by engaging fairly with other prominent female political figures, based on their record and not their looks, and avoiding the use of gendered stereotypes.

In more ways than one, this has been an historic and groundbreaking election. Not only one, but two women have been come close to a potential presidency; something second wave feminists didn’t think they would see in their lifetimes.

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