Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sexism in Politics

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Barack Obama has been my candidate of choice for quite some time, although I often refrain from discussing politics in public. Inevitably political discussions of national issues are doomed to enter an area that causes emotional disagreement. Most recently, of course, has been the re-emergence of sexism. Issues of sexism and misogyny played a huge role early on in the campaign, and there were multiple times when Senator Obama upset me by choosing words or policies that failed to be as complex as sexism is. Nevertheless, the misogyny of governments and politicians was brought forth only because one of the candidates was female. Should Hilary Clinton not have ran for President issues directly and most primarily affecting women would still have been discussed, but they would have been handled without the delicacy needed when there is a woman debating the issues on the same stage. In other words, no one would have said “feminist” “sexism” or “misogyny” without a female candidate. Which is ridiculous, as sexism still exists when women are not present. Indeed, Clinton’s presence helped to begin these discussions in many ways as women are often made invisible in politics and the ways that policies might affect women differently are rarely discussed.

This latest discussion of sexism, however, has completely baffled me and not because Obama is my candidate. As I said above, Obama has made sexist remarks, but this claim in particular is so depraved and convoluted that it completely baffles me. Obama’s comment is taken completely out of context, and it has been so successfully hidden from that context that it took me around eight hours to find the basic content of his speech (the video is put up by a McCain supporter, I'd avoid the comments section) so that I might judge for myself what the tone of the statement was.

Raised in Indiana, I heard the phrase “lipstick on a pig” used for everything from the difference between democrats and republicans to the very excuses we school-kids had for not finishing our homework. Here in New York, no one seems to know the phrase and I feel that, in part, the colloquialism may be part of the problem. Regardless of the fact that I firmly believe Obama meant the statement as a comparison between Senator McCain’s policies and President Bush’s policies, and that no misogyny was intended, I do believe it illustrates a general lack of awareness when it comes to sexism.

Any claim of sexism from the Republican Party isn’t worth addressing, as it’s clearly spurious and not being made from any space of real concern for women. After all, Senator McCain used this exact phrase to describe Senator Clinton’s health care policies back in October 2007 and May of 2008. Indeed, these very claims of sexism were mocked in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch where Amy Poehler's Hilary Clinton said she was "frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about," sexism. For Republican pundits, or the Clinton supports who threw "sexism" at everything that moved, the actual acknowledgment of sexsim as a still-relevant concern has never mattered. However, these claims are still important. After all, had there been someone forefront in the campaign with a more feminist consciousness such a gaffe would have never happened. This is especially true if there had been someone who had understood the history of feminist movement in the U.S. and knew about the forms of assault that women aligned with the movement in the 1960-80s faced which were incredibly vicious and verbal, where comparisons such as this were not uncommon. From such a history springs the automatic reaction we’ve seen, a reaction that is very sensitive to deprecatory remarks such as what this comment is supposed to be. I’m not labeling this reaction as un-thoughtful, either. Given the amount of sexist or anti-female comments made since Clinton announced her candidacy it’s clearly possible that a candidate could have made this comparison fully understanding the sexist nature of the phrase.

After listening to the speech in full I began to wonder if any of Obama’s female staffers had reviewed the script, or if any of his male staffers who have a background studying feminism had gotten to see it. Any political speechwriter should have seen the glaring mistake of using the phrase “lipstick on a pig” so close to the Republican female VP candidate’s use of the phrase “pit-bull in lipstick” as a self-descriptor. But of course…are there any female staffers who are interested in feminism? Are there any male or gender non-conforming staffers interested in the dismantling of misogyny and patriarchy? Or, like Obama, would they be ideologically aligned with the big issues but liable to miss the smaller instances of discrimination?

Here I don’t mean to point out a lack of intricate understanding as a definitive short falling. Obama has shown his dedication to many different issues that effect women and many issues that effect men and women. No one person is supposed to specialize in every single issue, it defeats the purpose of specialization, and presidents aren’t supposed to be solely informed on every issue, hence the importance of a cabinet. Moreover, strong women surround Obama at home, and I wouldn’t take his remarks or previous comments as coming from a place of misogyny. Rather, I think they come from a lack of complete focus on feminism due to a focus on other areas.

What the incident illustrates to me is that sexism still isn’t a central concern for Democratic or liberal candidates. This doesn’t make Obama’s campaign anti-female nor does it make him a sexist person. It does, however, bring Obama-supporting democrats down to a certain level where we realize that yes, even with Obama we will need to be vigilant. He has shown a lack of understanding on the intricate levels of feminism, and I hope he proves his commitment to women and feminism by appointing cabinet members who have focused more specifically on women’s issues. By doing this he will be acknowledging his lack and acknowledging the importance of centering issues of sexism in political discussions.

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