“Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.”
These words appeared in a Jan. 8, 2008 New York Times opinions piece by Gloria Steinem, the well-known feminist activist, endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. In the past, my response to reading this article would likely have been to toss the paper down onto the table and make a dismissive comment about how feminists had already achieved almost all of their objectives. However, some of the events of this primary season have made me realize that my past view was naive and almost entirely wrong.
My recognition of sexism’s role in the election began in January. At the beginning of the semester, politics was the talk of the town, and I started debating the relative merits of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with fellow Yalies. During one discussion about Sen. Clinton’s merits, I extolled the virtues of experience in a chief executive. The response I received was, “Yeah, but she’s such a bitch. And a skank!” Shocked, I could not respond. Since then, many of my conversations with groups of male acquaintances about Sen. Clinton have ended with the comment, “Oh, she’s a bitch,” followed by a lot of chuckling, and my glancing around, wondering what exactly was so very funny.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “bitch” as, “1. A female canine animal, especially a dog. 2. Offensive. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.” It defines “skank” as a woman who is “disgusting or vulgar.”
Although I personally support Sen. Clinton, I totally expect, and indeed welcome, people to disagree with my opinion. What bothers me, and what should upset a lot of people out there, especially women, is the manner in which people do so. As the first serious female presidential candidate in our country’s 232-year history, Senator Clinton is taking a lot of shots that male candidates are able to avoid. People frequently insult political candidates whom they do not favor. What is completely wrong, however, is to attack a candidate based on their gender, an innate characteristic over which he or she has no control. This sort of criticism is comparable to disliking Sen. Obama simply because he is black or, in 2000, to looking askance at Sen. Joseph Lieberman because he is Jewish. Sen. Clinton has served as one of New York’s senators since 2000 and was first lady for eight years prior to that. She deserves more respect than to be summarily dismissed with sexist insults.
Unfortunately, my conversations here at Yale seem to be indicative of the way that a surprisingly large number of Americans view Sen. Clinton. First, take Facebook. Groups related to Hillary Clinton abound. However, among these groups, some of the most popular are: “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” currently with 38,853 members, and “Life’s a bitch, why vote for one? Anti-Hillary ‘08,” which has several different incarnations, one with 16,296 members. Apparently, more people think it would be proper for Sen. Clinton to make them a sandwich than to be president, as “Make Me a Sandwich” easily outpaces “Hillary Clinton for President — One Million Strong,” by over 15,000 members.
The mainstream media has done its fair share in contributing to the widespread sexism against Sen. Clinton. First, Sen. Clinton was seen as overbearing, unapproachable and too manly. Then, she cried in New Hampshire — and won the state’s primary, supposedly showing, as a Jan. 10 New York Times article noted, “a human side of herself that [voters] had never seen.” And, amazingly, Sen. Clinton managed to instantaneously transform herself from being an automaton to a weakling, with The New York Times noting in the same article that an advisor to Sen. Clinton commented, “She can’t just keep crying.” Honestly, who cares? People cry sometimes, and not only women.
The media has also focused a bizarre amount of attention on Sen. Clinton’s clothing style. In addition to other pieces about what Sen. Clinton chooses to wear, a July 20, 2007 Washington Post article noted, “There was cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton. … There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.”
What is undeniable to me is the sexism that has underlined the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Bitch and skank. Make Me a Sandwich. Crying and cleavage. If these are the issues that we are using to reject Sen. Clinton, who is superbly qualified to be president, then our society is far less progressive than we pretend it to be.
Ben Tannen is a junior in Saybrook College.