To be a woman in politics is to walk a minefield. Everything about you will be subjected to minute and detailed scrutiny. If you dress too sloppily, you don’t care about your appearance. If you take time to look nice, you are trying too hard. Whatever legislation you participate in will be analysed through a gendered lens; is it because you’re a woman? It’s because you’re a woman that you are arguing for higher corn subsidies, isn’t it. You can never be a politician who happens to be a woman, you will always be a woman who happens to be a politician.
Sexism came up a lot in the 2008 Presidential campaigns, where we had several high profile women in politics reaching for the brass ring and ultimately falling. Hillary Clinton’s meteoric rise came to a crashing, and very ugly, halt. Throughout her campaign, she was held to a much higher, and harsher, standard than male candidates. Some women seemed to feel obliged to oppose Hillary because she was a woman, because they felt like they had to prove they didn’t have a gender bias. Black women were constantly held in the spotlight and asked how they were dealing with the choice between supporting a woman or a Black man, like people should chop up their identities and make all their major electoral decisions solely on the base of the candidate’s race or gender. I vividly recall an interview where a woman started to talk about the policy reasons for her decision to support Hillary and they cut her off because they were only interested in knowing how she, as a Black woman, was planning to vote; for the woman, or the Black guy? They didn’t want to know why, that would have been silly.
The patronising and sexist attitudes towards women in politics were glaringly apparent when the United States got involved in a military action against Libya in March. Several key woman in the Obama administration were involved in the decisionmaking here, and, well, take it away, NPR:
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, had to speculate on how being a woman played a role in Hillary Clinton’s decision to support action in Libya. Nobody actually cared that she had considered the situation and talked to people, that she was making a decision on the basis of careful thought, research, and discussion. It was all about how, as a woman, she had to balance the natural instinct to nurture versus the need to defend people from oppressive dictatorships. Or it was about how, as a woman in politics, she had to think about the reputation of women as ‘soft’ on foreign policy issues. It was about how, as a woman, she was obliged to support action in Libya because if she didn’t, she’d be in political trouble.
Writing about this at The Nation, Katha Pollitt touched upon the fact (h/t Sarah Jaffe) that women are not, in fact, innately pacifist. That the obsessive coverage over this highlighted the role of misogyny in politics[1. Alas, she concluded her piece with a reprisal of the old ‘misogyny is the last acceptable prejudice of the left’ claim, which, no. I really hate it when authors have to end an otherwise excellent piece on a point like that. As Pollitt is surely aware, the left has plenty of other prejudices it freely and regularly indulges. Racism, classism, and ableism abound. Look, just for example, speaking of women in politics, at the vicious battle that erupted in San Francisco, bastion of liberal values, when Michela Alioto-Pier demanded the right to equal access at city hall.]:
In any case, the fact that three women argued for it skillfully and won their point is not very interesting. So why stress it, except that it mobilizes a raft of misogynist tropes about castrating females, the dangers of petticoat government and the folly of expecting anything good to come out of gender equality? After all, can you imagine a piece in The Nation titled “Black President Opts for Bombs” or “Gadhafi, a Man, Threatens to Massacre Rebels, Most of Whom Are Also Men”?
For women in politics who have to be involved in any kind of military action, every move they will ever make will be wrong. If they support the use of force, they are reacting to stereotypes about women as peacemakers. If they don’t support military action, they are embodying the stereotype that women are pacifists and don’t believe in war. The same holds true for women in the military, particularly women in the brass; there is no way to win, here. Everything will be perennially analysed through a gendered lens.
It doesn’t seem to occur to these analysts that women in positions of political power make decisions on the same basis that everyone else in political power does; after evaluating available information, after talking to people who are in a position to know more, after thinking about it privately, after thinking about long term goals, after thinking about the national interest. Except that women, in addition to having to do all of these things, also have to think about the role stereotypes will play in the public reception of their decisions. If you wait too long, you’re being too girlie, evidence that women shouldn’t have to make decisions like this. If you are assertive and confident and make a decision early, well, obviously you’re just a bloodthirsty harridan.