MEDANSKY: Running away from the glass ceiling

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the United States. At least, she tried to run. A newspaper-publishing, stock-exchanging and pot-stirring advocate for sexual liberty and women’s suffrage, Woodhull nabbed the nomination of the historically dubious Equal Rights Party. Her bid was questionable, and, ever the rabble-rouser, Woodhull spent Election Day behind bars.

Alas, incumbent Ulysses Simpson Grant — that great lover of whiskey and war — snatched the election from Democrat Horace Greeley, and poor Victoria wasn’t even an afterthought. Her impact on American political culture was ultimately as small as the corseted waists she so strongly opposed.

Today, armchair historians interested in Woodhull as a historical footnote tend to study the legitimacy of her presidential bid from constitutional and practical angles. But back in 1872, the objection to her campaign was clear: She was a woman. She was unable to vote, unable to campaign, and therefore unable to exercise her rights as an American citizen. But we’ve made some progress since then.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton withdrew from the Democratic primary race in 2008, she thanked her supporters, addressing the symbolic and cultural importance of the contest. “Children today will grow up taking for granted that an African-American or a woman can become president of the United States,” Clinton said.

“The glass ceiling,” she told supporters, has “about 18 million cracks.”

Sexism was not the reason Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic primary, but her candidacy did much to reveal the sexist undertones that still pervade American society. The odd fixation on Clinton’s cackling laugh and questionably flattering pantsuits? Gendered.

It’s not always easy to distinguish genderless attacks — say, a particularly sharp criticism of foreign policy — from real sexist remarks. No woman wants to play the girl who cried wolf. So let me be clear: I don’t think every attack on a female politician constitutes sexism. A good handful of popular tropes, however, sure do. One word: cankles.

All presidential candidates endure attacks unrelated to their platforms — see John McCain’s houses and John Edwards’ haircut. But being a woman presents particular problems. Attacks on apparel, appearance and allure become more legitimate. Interview questions become less Politico and more People. And every woman must tread the tenuous line between being a pushover and being a bitch.

These subtle manifestations of sexism affect all women, not just Democrats or liberals. Sarah Palin faced sexism, too — media outlets focused on her perceived hotness, and her head found itself Photoshopped onto a star-spangled bikini, her computerized limbs clutching a gun almost as big as her Photoshopped breasts.

This time around, Minnesota Tea Partier Michele Bachmann got the short end of the proverbial stick. She was “Crazy Eyes” Bachmann, her appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” choreographed to a song called “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” There were accusations of condescension during the debates, and then, of course, that infamous Newsweek cover.

I’m not sure if all the aforementioned examples constitute sexism — intent, of course, matters, and the line between well-meaning satire and malevolent snark is thin. But let me tell you what is sexism, explicitly, clearly and undeniably: last year, a Santorum staffer wrote an email questioning Bachmann’s qualification for the presidency. The biggest stumbling block? Her gender.

“Is it God’s highest desire, that is, His biblically expressed will,” wrote Iowa staffer Jamie Johnson in a private email that surfaced a week or so ago, “to have a woman rule the institutions of the Family, the Church, and the State?”

Unfortunately, temporal concerns — by which I mean yesterday’s Wikipedia blackout — prevent me from asking the Internet how Deborah and Miriam would have felt about Johnson’s interpretation of the Bible. But lest you think sexism is no longer a problem — that it is an excuse for weakness, an unwarranted whine or a relic of 1872 — look no further. Here it is: a man who believes two X chromosomes preclude a woman — any woman — from leading. At Yale, it’s easy to forget that beliefs like these still exist.

It’s gotten better; it isn’t 1872 anymore. Today, the biggest obstacle to Victoria Woodhull’s run would be her radical ideals and complete lack of political organization — not her gender. But don’t take progress for granted. After all, the glass ceiling may be cracked, battered, bruised and beaten. But as long as people like Jamie Johnson believe that effective leadership depends on gender, the glass ceiling will still exist. We just won’t ever look up to see it.

Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at


  • The Anti-Yale

    “’Is it God’s highest desire, that is, His biblically expressed will,’ wrote Iowa staffer Jamie Johnson in a private email that surfaced a week or so ago, ‘to have a woman rule the institutions of the Family, the Church, and the State?’”

    Is this whole theory dependent on a fleshly appendage?

    Would God accept as leader of “family, church and state” a transgendered person who has surgically acquired male apparatus? Or a person with male apparatus but female chromosomal constituency? Or a eunuch?

    Jamie J. is exhibiting nothing less than twenty-first-century phallic worship.

    It phallocentric nonsense that rules the world.


  • River_Tam

    Give me a break.

    Of course sexism is still “a problem”. There are people who are sexist. That is a problem.

    Is it *worth our time* to devote resources to “fighting sexism” in the year 2011? I don’t think so. Some people will always be close-minded bigots. People will always find reasons to latch onto some quality that makes them better than others.

    (Note: this only applies to the US – we *should* be devoting more resources to better promote the rights of women in the underdeveloped world).

    • JackJ

      But doesn’t devoting resources to promote the rights of women in the (sic) underdeveloped world (note politically correct term is ‘developing’) cause resentment and adverse response even to the point of open aggression? How many leaders in the developing world want US funded programs that will fundamentally change their power structure? How many religious leaders want women to assert themselves in a world where they are chattel?

      I’m not so sure I would exempt the US from your efforts since if you were to ask an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a preacher from certain Christian evangelical sects, and a Muslim imam, questions about women’s status in the world and society you would receive startlingly similar answers. And each answer would be rooted in scripture written in a time where the world was tribal, underpopulated and governed in most part by the rule of strength and fitness (as in survival of the fittest and might makes right.)

      • River_Tam

        The “politically correct term” is misleading because (1) some of the so-called ‘developing’ countries are in fact not developing at all, because (2) even ‘developed’ nations are still ‘developing’, and because (3) the opposite of ‘developed’ world is not ‘developing’.

        > But doesn’t devoting resources to promote the rights of women in the underdeveloped world cause resentment and adverse response even to the point of open aggression?

        It certainly could, but resentment is the price of moral rectitude. The South resented an end to slavery as well.

        As for your assignment of blame to religion (an irrelevant and incorrect assignment), I’d note that the religiosity and socioeconomic development are inversely correlated, and that unlike Orthodox Jewish Rabbis and “certain Christian evangelical sects” (sic), fundamentalist Muslim leaders actually do control the political fate and restrict the rights of millions of women.

        • JackJ

          Then you must be unfamiliar with a “get” wherein a woman is released from the bonds of matrimony. Such are only obtainable through a religious court of Rabbis. Visit Beth Din for a read.

          As for your correlation of religiosity and socioeconomic development how do you account for states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran which has a significant middle class and, when not confronting the Western world, a sound financial status.

          Re the South resenting the end of slavery: I think you’ll find it was more about having foreign rule imposed on them than the loss of any particular institution. Do some research on the number of slave holders in the South in 1860 and then tell me how the South managed to put almost a million men in the field during the Civil War. Why would you fight to protect someone else who held an unfair advantage over you in that they had slaves for labor and you had only your family. Perhaps it was simply they didn’t like being ordered about by what they saw as a foreign entity.

          Even the French resent Le Big Mac although they took pretty well to Le Jazz Hot.