I know this is a new direction from our letters this past week, but I need to talk to you about the election! Specifically, about sexism. My good friend Stacy came storming into my kitchen last night ready to explode after listening to CNN all day, and hearing the comments about whether a woman can be a mom and a Vice-President.
To give you a taste of her frustration, CNN’s John Roberts has recently mused about Sarah Palin’s relationship with her youngest child. He is quoted as saying, “Children with Down syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?”
Why oh why oh why are those questions not asked of fathers? Has anyone questioned Barack Obama about how he plans to balance being the president and not miss out on important years of his young daughters’ lives? Of course they don’t, because they assume Michelle Obama will take care of things.
I sat at the kitchen table with Stacy trying to process why these kinds of comments are fair game to throw at a female candidate, when a male candidate would not be addressed with them.
Balancing Work and Family
But to be honest, deep down I had to wonder if I had some of the same doubts in myself that I had seen in the media. For a moment, I had to wonder (again) how a woman really balances family and work: I had to ask myself if I really believed that mothers should have equal opportunities as fathers when it comes to pursuing work outside their families. I am not a mother, so I have to question myself in general when I make any claims about parenting. I do know that John Roberts is not the only person asking the question he voiced on TV, and it is important to talk about the assumptions he is making when he asks that question. It is so easy to look at a powerful, ambitious career woman with a young child and question her priorities, when most of us would never look at a man with that kind of suspicion. A woman looks “selfish” while a man looks successful.
My friend Stacy, who is a sister feminist and a specialist in early child development, became a good sounding board for my honest struggling. We had studied attachment theory together in our psychology grad program, so we had already talked quite a bit about how mothers are assumed to be the primary parent, and are so often the first person blamed when children are struggling. I peppered Stacy with my questions:
• Should mothers really have more of a role in parenting than fathers? Why?
• Are women innately built to be the primary caregiver or is that just something we have made-up?
• What about breastfeeding? How long in the baby’s early months should a mother be more available than a father because of breast-feeding? Biology has something to do with this conversation.
• Post the breast-feeding season in an infant’s life, why can’t fathers take over many of the day-to-day responsibilities that so often mothers are assumed to do? Why are so many child-rearing tasks given to women?
I have heard the answers from the perspective of attachment theory—I have studied that a child bonds to a primary caregiver (usually the mother) and that disrupting that bond is harmful. I am just not convinced the theory works across different times, cultures, and ways of parenting.
The more we talked and the more I went back to basic questions and assumptions, the more I questioned again how our society marginalizes the role of fathers, and assumes that women do the vast percentage of parenting. If men were simply expected to parent as well as and as much as women, might we find that they are equally capable of the task? On the other hand, even in the case of highly involved fathers, how do “normal” mothers (read mothers who don’t have as much money and resources) balance careers and young children, when so much of the typical work environment is not set up to accommodate the practical needs of family life?
While the skeptical words from people like John Roberts bother me, I am getting equally perplexed by how others want to play up the allure of Palin’s “supermom” status. Since when does being a supermom equate to having the credentials to be Vice-President of the United States? Why is there so much focus on her role as a mother? While it is understandable to show appreciation for Palin’s role as a mother, what we should be talking about are issues like her position on global warming, health care, the war in Iraq, and the economy, not her baby or her daughter’s pregnancy. What a grande distraction from the real issues! These concerns would not be the focus if Palin was a man.
Even in the midst of all the Palin adoration at the Republic National Convention, I still sense she is not being treated as an equal at all, but as a token woman being used to rally emotions. And that frustrates me as much as the outright misogyny and pejorative language that assailed Hillary Rhodham Clinton. Michelle Obama, too, has had to contend with sexism — and racism as well.
Spotlight on Double Standards
What I both love and hate about gender issues in this presidential election is that the double standards are being held up under a very bright spotlight. Male and female candidates are not evaluated the same way, and there is not enough critical thinking as to why. Regardless of which candidates we would vote for in November, it seems clear that all of us who care about gender justice—whether voting Republican or Democrat— should be in conversation about the nature of sexism in this election.
Do you remember when John McCain laughed like nearly everyone else in the room when someone in an audience asked him, “How do we beat the bitch?” He actually smiled, made a joke, and then called the remark an “excellent question.” Would he dare have responded in such a cavalier way if someone had applied an equally derogatory and racial term to describe Obama? McCain’s response is a perfect picture of why sexism has not gone away: consciously or unconsciously, many people treat sexism not as a serious issue, but as something that can be dismissed or laughed at.
Different Kinds of Sexism
And yet, there are very different kinds of sexism at play in this election. Calling Hillary Rodham Clinton a “bitch” is one form; judging or lauding a potential Vice-President on the basis of her role as a mother is quite a different form, but it is still just as dangerous.
Whether a woman is being assailed or idealized on the basis of her sex, there really is little difference. In neither case is she being treated equally to a male candidate, who is not being evaluated based on his gender, how well he fits a gender role, or how well he parents. So, while the sexism at play with Hillary Rodhman Clinton might look completely different than the adoration given Palin by some enthusiastic voters, I would argue that there really is little difference at all. I had a psychopathology professor in grad school who always said that devaluation and idealization are essentially the same psychological defenses, and they always are packaged together. We humans are prone to loving and hating and setting up splits.
However one feels about the respective positions of John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sarah Palin, it should be clear now that sexism is alive and well in this country, that it is insidious, and that it influences politics. If there is anything redeeming about the sexism at work in this current election, it is that what is so often hidden to many people’s eyes should now be quite visible.
So, Letha, those are my thoughts after following the election this week. I am curious what you are thinking as you observe the events unfold?