Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–The presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton has some disturbing messages for uppity women in the United States.

The reality that a woman is so close to the top political post in the country–perhaps even the world–has stirred up old ideas about the danger of female power and about woman’s proper place in society. The backlash is sending a retro cloud across a number of fronts.

I’d been hearing from female friends–some of whom do not support Hillary–that the backlash surprised them.

Apparently, they missed the Wall Street Journal story on April 9 by Jonathan Kaufman and Carol Hymowitz, who wrote about the slurs and inflammatory language that many women encountered when the topic of the campaign came up at work, and which they thought had been banished from public discourse.

“Some women worry that regardless of how the election turns out,” they wrote, “the resistance to Senator Clinton may embolden some men to resist women’s efforts to share power with them in business, politics and elsewhere.”

If Hillary were male, and had garnered so many votes, no one would be calling for a pullout.

Worrying Signs

Are we heading into a new era of resistance to female gains? There are worrying signs to suggest that the answer is yes.

They are not only found in the dust of Hillary’s campaign trail, but also in the college admission practices, votes in Congress, Supreme Court decisions.

Elite schools are quietly instituting affirmative action policies for white men, so top-scoring women may not be getting into their colleges of choice.

U.S. News and World Report, using undergraduate admissions rate data collected from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in the magazine’s rankings, found last year that over the previous 10 years many schools are maintaining their gender balance by admitting more men with lower scores than women.

“The fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today’s accomplished young women,” Jennifer Delahunty, the dean of admissions at Kenyon College, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year.

Most disturbing, Delahunty told Time magazine, “was the reaction of young women. By and large they just assumed this is just how things work. Why aren’t they marching in the streets? It isn’t fair and women should be saying something about it not being fair.”

What’s the Message?

What message are girls–and boys–being given? That men and boys will always be allowed to step ahead of women, no matter how accomplished the latter?

The U.S. Congress could not even summon enough votes in April for a bill that would allow a woman to sue for sex discrimination at the time she discovered it was happening.

Pressures, meanwhile, are intensifying for women to work longer and longer hours as family-friendly policies stall. An ongoing media narrative says that women in good jobs are deserting the workplace because of a traditional pull toward home and family.

In a time when affirmative action programs for blacks and other minorities are under attack–limited by the Supreme Court and challenged by new activist groups–special privileges for white males are on the rise. Parents are seeing their high-scoring, talented girls losing out to less able boys, and this comes not just from a few isolated anecdotes.

At the same time, the political powers-that-be are sending out a message that discrimination against women in the workplace is no big deal.

When an Alabama woman sued Goodyear because she had been paid less than men doing the same work for two decades, the Supreme Court (just after the departure of Sandra Day O’Connor) ruled that she had waited too long to sue. The court said she should have brought her case within six months after her first unequal paycheck–that is, 20 years before she discovered it.

You’d think the Congress, which pays lip service to equal pay for equal work, would come racing to remedy this injustice.

What happened? The House countered the high court ruling by passing a bill that would permit lawsuits by victims of discrimination when they discover discrimination, not when the discrimination occurred. But it couldn’t make it through the Senate. George Bush threatened to veto such a bill if it passed, and John McCain said he opposed it.

Media Embraces a Narrative

Meanwhile, a media narrative persists that the best and the brightest women are simply going home. They are “opting out” and becoming more traditional, feeling the pull of kids, hearth and home, their “natural” place.

Signs hoisted by hecklers at Clinton rallies –“Stop running for president and make me a sandwich,” “Iron my shirt”–show the ugly underside of that sentimental version.

What’s really happening, says New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson, is that full-time paid work has come to mean 50 hours or more. That overload is what working mothers are rejecting. Women, overall, aren’t “opting out” of full-time work, but are getting pushed out by an increasingly inflexible workplace. That story is not being told.

Just ask Joan C. Williams. In a report in the American Prospect in March she found the vast majority–more than 70 percent–of the newspaper stories she and others analyzed emphasized pulls rather than pushes. Women were following the pull toward home, “with little mention of how the workplace pushes them out.”

This is true even though a 2004 study by researchers Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy found that 86 percent of highly qualified women surveyed said work-related reasons, including workplace inflexibility, were key considerations in their decisions to quit. Only 6 percent of newspaper articles that Williams reviewed identified workplace pushes as key reasons why women left work.

Put these disparate items together and you see the clear message: Women have gone too far, and they shouldn’t be running for president. They belong at home, and in fact are choosing to stay home. So why shouldn’t males get the college spots, and who cares about workplace discrimination?

As president Hillary Clinton could change at least some of this. That’s why it’s so hard to listen to the delegate-counters say her prospects are fading.

Some women are fighting back.

On May 20, the Women’s Media Center launched a “Sexism Sells, But We’re Not Buying It” campaign against the pervasive sexism in the media’s election coverage. The group’s Web site offers a petition for you to sign, chiding media outlets for their performance. “Sexism isn’t a partisan issue,” it says. “We’re not going to let anyone hit the snooze button on this important issue!”

To which I say, “Amen!”

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of “Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women.”

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