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Hillary's Bias Problems Have Deep Cultural Roots

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary Clinton's campaign is pulling at the deep cultural roots of gender bias. Elizabeth Keathley says that's why the senator is so often caught in the double bind between being considered either "too feminine" or "too masculine."

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Hillary Clinton's campaign is pulling at the deep cultural roots of gender bias. Elizabeth Keathley says that's why the senator is so often caught in the double bind between being considered either "too feminine" or "too masculine."
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Elizabeth Keathley

(WOMENSENEWS)--Earlier in the primary contest, when comedian Chris Rock quipped on "Saturday Night Live" that Barack Obama was more disadvantaged than Hillary Clinton because "everyone loves white women . . . except other white women," he might have been channelling the mid-20th century philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

Beauvoir famously argued that women had difficulty uniting and supporting each other because their livelihood and status depended on a "good" marriage. Their competition for husbands engendered envy and hindered female bonding.

Although Chris Rock's joke sparks a laugh of recognition, we should acknowledge that white women are actually the ones showing Hillary the greatest love at the ballot box, voting for her in primary after primary.

That suggests that other women are not the enemy of Hillary nor, for that matter, of all other women. Rather, the enemy is culture and history.

The socio-economic changes of 19th-century Europe and America gave momentum to the international women's movement. Urbanization stripped unmarried women of their traditional, agrarian occupations, while numerous wars depleted the population of available husbands to support them. Women sought traditionally male occupations and civil rights, but these "first wave" feminists of the late 19th century reaped opprobrium and physical abuse for violating the ideals of domesticity, humility and deference to men.

Two centuries later, the ideal of separate spheres for men and women still holds sway in the public imagination and fuels the petty media criticism of Hillary that gets so much attention.

Voices as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Barbra Streisand and punk rocker Kathleen Hanna have remarked that women and men doing the same things are judged differently--women more negatively--and that this double standard has circumscribed the range of socially acceptable behavior available to women.


Feminine Speech Signals Incompetence

Education researcher Bernice Sandler and linguist Deborah Tannen have shown that women who speak in a conventionally "feminine" manner (soft volume, high pitch, upward inflection) are perceived as less competent, while those who speak in a more decisive (masculine) manner (lower pitch, downward inflection) are perceived as aggressive.

When Hillary conforms to the norms of feminine vocal comportment, she is too careful. When she raises her voice in passion, she is shrill. Lectern-thumping, emotionally charged rhetoric by a female candidate would be dismissed as hysterical. How, then, is a female presidential candidate to speak?

Because the expression of sentiment is so profoundly linked to the domestic sphere, women who refrain from such displays are heartless, yet those who do show emotion are weak and irrational. This can be seen in the media reaction to Hillary's now famous "emo moment" before the New Hampshire primary: Some saw her as more human, others saw her as unfit to be commander in chief, and others thought she was just faking emotion.

No male candidate is required to demonstrate his humanity in similar ways. Mitt Romney's numerous misty moments have gone largely unnoticed, but Maureen Dowd's cynical Jan. 8 column in The New York Times, "Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?" circulated internationally.


Hillary's Double Bind

Hillary's double bind plays out for women across this country. I see it in my own experience as a college professor as well as that of my female colleagues. Even though professional competence should matter most, we are excoriated for failures of femininity. Students, for instance, expect us to be more nurturing and indulgent. When we hold them to academic standards--in other words, when we do our jobs--we are often labelled harsh.

Interviewing Hillary after the New Hampshire primary, Katie Couric--a woman who should understand the double bind--pressed Hillary to be more "humble" about her chances to win the Democratic nomination. But similar bravado by male candidates has gone unquestioned. The cultural code is clear: The confidence of the public campaign is masculine; women should stick to the humility of traditional femininity.

Gender, of course, also inflects the perception of age. In spite of decades of criticism of this practice, the visual delectation of female bodies remains the dominant pop-culture lens for viewing women: Age is a liability for women, an asset for men.

This perception of middle-aged women as hopelessly out of date assists the media's easy dismissal of Clinton after every setback, most notably her loss at the Iowa caucuses.

Pundits rationalized their wrong predictions in several ways, but the idea of Hillary as a has-been was preconditioned by a long tradition of late-night television jokes about her putative lack of sex appeal. For example, last week David Letterman remarked sarcastically that Hillary's pantsuits make her look "even hotter."


Sequential Opportunities

Our social structures do not demand that men build their families and careers in sequence, as many women must do.

Like many working mothers, Hillary deferred to the professional ambitions of her husband, reserving her highest aspirations until their daughter was older, and during that time she developed important knowledge, skills and relationships that can serve the presidency well.

What does it say about the opportunities for any woman in our culture if her professional clock runs out while she raises her family and develops skills? By the time a woman has earned her credentials for the highest public office, is she already too old?

Perhaps the most devastating residue of gender bias during the campaign is the easy dismissal of Hillary's long and effective record of advocacy for women and children, but this should not be brushed aside.

As United Nations reports show, most of the world's poor are women and children; and nothing promotes a society's wellbeing like educating women and assuring their access to nutrition and health care, including family planning.

The cultural benefits of attending to women's concerns echo through successive generations. We should consider this when we seek to change our society.

Elizabeth L. Keathley teaches music history and women's studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She writes about women, music and modernism.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

"Cable News' Locker-Room Mentality Really Stinks":
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3492

Bernice Sandler, Women's Research and Education Institute:
http://www.bernicesandler.com/

Barbra Streisand, Introduction to Hillary Clinton, Jan. 31, 2008:
http://www.barbrastreisand.com/index.php?page=statements&n_id=656

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