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Sunday, September 23, 2007
Women in Charge
So I finally got around to watching the TV shows I TiVod last week and saw Jon Stewart's interview with Bill Clinton on The Daily Show (watch the clip here). What struck me were the cultural assumptions about gender that clip revealed (and yes I know this is a satire show and those assumptions were most likely deliberate).

Stewart of course had to talk to Bill Clinton about his wife's presidential run. My point here isn't about if Hillary should or shouldn't be president, but the gender assumptions associated with that. During the whole segment, Stewart kept pushing Bill to talk about how weird it would be to have his wife in a position of power over him. Stewart made pillow talk jokes, and implied that one's manhood would be in question if one's wife were to be president. Bill to his credit did everything he could to avoid those paths Stewart was trying to lead him down.

Now I know that the Bill and Hillary thing is different in a way because she is running for the position he once held and all that, but the gender assumptions aren't limited to their relationship. Even when Bill was president people took offense that Hillary played such an involved role in politics. Unlike other First Ladies she wasn't just a pretty accessory who shows off the White house Holiday decorations to the press and occasionally gets involved in "good causes." I remember frequently seeing bumper stickers that went something along the lines of "Impeach President Clinton and Her Husband Too!" Now I was not a Clinton fan at the time, but I still found those bumper stickers offensive for the assumptions they made about women, especially women in power.

The idea is that there is something wrong about a woman being in a position of political power. Some men think it is a challenge to their manhood to answer to a woman. If anyone watched the TV series Commander in Chief a couple of years ago you saw this theme played out (well at least after the point in the season where Rod Lurie was removed from creative control and they started pursuing stupid plots like that...) In that show, when a woman (by accident not election) became president, her husband entered an identity crisis and basically abandoned his family so he could prove himself. This is the American idea of what it would mean for a woman to lead. The focus is less on her abilities and qualifications, and more on her sexuality and its impact on men.

Now I fully understand that people don't support Hillary for a number of reasons other than her gender, but as the campaign continues it is disheartening to see the gender card continue to be played against her. Is the country really still so sexist and afraid of women in positions of power? What will it take to truly get beyond that? For those of you in other countries (especially those that have elected women as heads of state) do you see a different dynamic at play?

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posted by Julie at 6:24 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 9/23/2007 09:17:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    I think men's sexuality plays a huge role in their political power -- it's just that men do not lose respect/authority when they use their charm and perceived sexual prowess to gain voter appeal and affirmation.

    I personally think Hillary's problem (and that of many women who find themselves competing for traditionally male roles) is that she lacks the same charisma as Bill. I have heard she is a balanced, nice and geniuine person face to face, it just doesn't come across in her media persona. Maybe she is trying to hard to be taken seriously, perhaps over compensating for the fact that a woman IS less likely to be taken seriously? Now if she were as winsome in her public demeanor, would she be written off as a sex object or a warm mother or a witty intern-type? I have no clue.

    I do know that many women I have encountered as professors are (with a few exceptions) less engaging and not as funny and encouraging as their male counterparts. I have talked with other women who have had similar experiences. Is this because women have to fight an uphill battle that ends up making them uptight? Are women carrying so many burdens (and find it harder to create personal/professional dichotomies) that it results in a more stressed, less enchanting "vibe" than men who leave home guilt-free to enter the work world? I have questions, but no answers. Thoughts anyone?

  • At 9/24/2007 07:15:00 AM, Anonymous agma

    I have not had your experience with female profs being less likable. I have found that personality variances (and thus my preferences) ignore the gender divide. So who knows?

    Keep an eye on the media's reporting of women in power. They just can't seem to help themselves, whether it's Hillary's cleavage, Condi's boots, or Nancy's baking. Reporting constantly undermines women and it's only by drawing attention to it that we change anything. Watch for how often appearance is part of the story for women v. men.

  • At 9/24/2007 07:22:00 AM, Blogger Lydia

    Watch for how often appearance is part of the story for women v. men.

    I've noticed that.

    Thoughts anyone?

    I didn't notice that specifically when I was in college, but I did notice that students seemed to come down a little harder on the female professors they didn't like than they would on a male professor with similar poor behavior.

    That is, a male professor who was constantly late (or who played favourites) was grumbled about. A female professor who did the same, though, was called a b*tch. (but not to her face).

  • At 9/24/2007 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Jemila - I know what you mean. In college we had required chapel three days a week. It was a general assumption that on the rare occasions when a woman spoke she wouldn't be real good. Granted women would usually speak on issues like body image, overcoming sexual sin, or "being successful in the business world" and not the typical sermons the male speakers would give. A bunch of us thought that the college went out of its way to get poor women speakers (speaking on appropriate feminine topics)so as to help promote the idea that women shouldn't (can't) preach.

    agma - It is all over the media. and even when people think they are being nice and giving a compliment, it can come across as sexist. Example - I generally watch Iron Chef America. Chefs come to challege the 4 Iron Chefs (3 men, one woman) to a cooking contest. The language as they choose the Chef they will challenge is telling. When they choose one of the guys, they generally say - "I want to challenge the best." or "I'm a big fan of his restaurants." when they challenge the woman, they say stuff like - "My mom was a strong and intelligent woman, so I choose her." I don't think they would ever say "my dad was a strong and intelligent man, so I choose him..." I just bugs me that while men can be accepted and appreciated for who they are and what they have done, women are always referred to by our gender. Can't we just be people?

  • At 9/24/2007 03:11:00 PM, Blogger One Voice of Many

    My only issue with Hillary during Bill's presidential run was that she was involved in policy making decisions simply by the fact of marriage. Our system is set up for elected officials to be placed in positions of power.

    I don't mean to sound that the First Ladies need to be ornamental in purpose only however to be given a position of power that any other person, rightfully, is required to receive through election is not appropriate.

    Just my thoughts...

  • At 9/24/2007 04:30:00 PM, Anonymous agma

    Michelle makes an interesting point about Hillary getting power access through marriage. Is that true for many other wives of powerful men also? Aren't the wives of government officials, powerful businessmen, and even pastors selected to serve on boards, committees, commissions, etc. simply because of their husbands' cachet? My high school commencement address was given by the wife of a baseball team manager. Incidentally she was pretty good, but I remember thinking, "Wow, she's building her speaking career on who her husband is."

    Ours is also a government by appointed positions- both men & women. Perhaps we should consider the Clinton presidency as the first one to elevate 1st Lady to a Cabinet-level position?

  • At 9/24/2007 10:40:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    My mom and I just had a heated debate about Hillary the other day. I'm open to hearing what's up with different candidate from all parties in the upcoming election. My mom was a bit appalled. She referred to how Hillary only married and stuck with her husband because of the power she could gain, how she really wasn't committed to the marriages...and again...it's all about power.

    I fell for that back in the day. Not that Hillary doesn't want some power. But, maybe she wants it because she has some ideas on how things could operate differently. I think it's interesting that Hillary was (and is) accused by the media of working to obtain influence through her husband. Don't the guys do the same thing, but instead find someone willing to pay the sacrifice in home life for them to obtain their goals in public life. I think women in general are judged much too harshly in this regard.

  • At 9/25/2007 09:45:00 AM, Blogger One Voice of Many

    Yes I think that both spouses tend to use each other for their own advancement but if you think about it, we all use networking in some form or another. It just appears more obvious when your source of networking in your spouse AND you're in the public eye at the same time.

    Bill and Hillary are unique in the fact of all the controversy that Bill stirred up all by himself. The history behind his own political bombs adds more negativity behind anything either of them will try to accomplish.

  • At 9/25/2007 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    Julie, that's funny! The seminary I'm at is pretty lib so I'm not prone to think it's (at least a conscious) attempt to show women as inferior. But are there things in the world of power (which as dominated by male power models, primarily) that disenfranchise talented, capable women in some way?

    Perhaps women get in one another's way by feeling intimidated when a woman is successful? Perhaps women play dumb not only for men but also to gain acceptance with other women?

  • At 10/04/2007 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Heidi

    I don't think the bumper sticker referred to a problem with women having political power but having power ONLY because she was the presidents wife. After all, Bill was elected to office, NOT Hillary.
    Also, I have heard, from people who deal directly with Hillary, that she IS NOT a very nice person when the public isn't looking. I guess I don't believe Jemila's comment on her being a nice genuine person face to face.....


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