Thursday, May 29, 2008

Price Waterhouse and Clinton

PriceWaterhouse v. Hopkins is one of the most important sex discrimination cases in recent history. Ann Hopkins was denied partnership with the Price Waterhouse accounting firm. Testimony established that she was caught in a double-bind: while the general culture of PW demanded a sort of hyper-masculinity to succeed, when Hopkins attempted to emulate this norm, she was castigated for being insufficiently feminine. It was ruled that this bind constituted actionable sex discrimination. This situation exists in broader culture as well: society articulates the routes to success in male terms, but when women attempt to follow them they find that traditional gender norms are strictly held against them. While everyone is to some degree boxed in by social conventions, women have a far smaller box to play in than men do.

I was reminded of Price Waterhouse and the more general ailment it signifies when reading this editorial by Margaret M. Russell and Stephanie M. Wildman. They are answering the charge that women supporting Obama represents a sort of betrayal of the sisterhood, and point out some reason why women might legitimately prefer Obama over Clinton. One passage stuck out at me, though:
We value his explicit and repeated emphasis on the language of diplomacy to solve problems, including his own; conversely, Clinton’s threat to “totally obliterate” Iran, as well as her metaphors of Rocky Balboa and boxing gloves, leave us cold.

I find this distressing, because it seems clear to me that Clinton has been pressured into adopting these tropes specifically because she's female. Certainly, the "man card" form of identity politics is nothing new in American elections, but there's a reason that Clinton is not the one challenging it, just as there's a reason Nixon was the one to go to China and not LBJ. I'd love to push political deliberation beyond the current "who can down more shots at the bar" standard, but Clinton can't press the issue too much because she's a woman -- she's ultimately the target that these patriarchal norms are designed to suppress. A male candidate might be able to effectively critique these norms from the inside, because his success would performatively indicate that men can still succeed under the new regime. A female critique directly threatens the male privilege these norms are supposed to protect, making backlash inevitable. Hence, women trying to succeed in a patriarchal world often times are forced to prove they are "one of the guys", rather than demonstrate that things can go just as well even if she remains proudly a gal.

In such a world, criticizing Clinton for adapting the classical male tropes that we typically demand our politicians adhere to represents one of the key enforcement mechanisms of sexism. It's like when Barack Obama was being indicted for not being enough of a "fighter" -- he has to adopt the soaring, conciliatory posture that he does because if he shows the slightest bit of passion he immediately will be cast as the "angry Black man." At that point, criticizing him for being not-John-Edwards enough totally misses how racism operates in public context. Likewise with Clinton. That patriarchal structure forces her into postures that are not to our preference is not a fair indictment of her -- it blames the victim for the crimes of the perpetrator.


Anonymous said...

Hey, we agree on something!

There's another one that hasn't received as much attention, though, and I think is more damaging: ambition. Women aren't supposed to have it, or, if we do, we're still supposed to be somewhat demure about it.

Running for the Presidency cannot be made into a demure act.

SO much Clinton criticism boils down (and, obviously, I'm simplifying) to outrage that she has the temerity to openly express her ambition. I've seen repeated instances in which the fact that she wants the Presidency is hurled, unadorned, as criticism. And is received and understood as such.

Unlike aggression, on which she can ape the boys (so to speak), I'm not seeing a way around this one.

Kangiskan said...

this is somewhat relevant
"Much has been made of gender’s role in this race. To me, its most insidious effect was that Hillary always had to show she “wasn’t no punk.”"


PG said...

But isn't it women who are saying that they like the language of diplomacy? It would be different if male voters were looking at Hillary Clinton and saying, "Too butch," but your example is of female voters being turned off by an aggressive posture. So long as the female voters feel that way about male candidates as well -- are, for example, also doubtful of McCain's "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" -- that doesn't seem comparable to the PriceWaterhouse situation, where traits valued in men were denigrated in women.

However, I agree that Clinton may feel it necessary to cowboy it up in order to appeal to male voters, in a way that Obama doesn't have to do because he has a penis.

As for ambition, most of the criticism I've heard among Democrats and independents has been of the Clintons as a couple, expressed as an annoyance that they seem to consider the presidency to be Sen. Clinton's due. I was a little troubled by Sen. Clinton's having sidelined her own ambitions in order to support her husband's (exactly what a good little woman should do, of course). I know that many female heads of state have been the spouses and daughters of prior heads, but I wish Clinton had been more like Thatcher in this respect than Bhutto/ Gandhi. At least Bhutto Sr. and Nehru were dead and their daughters didn't have to bring them into office with them. Denis Thatcher really was the ideal husband for a female politician: agreeing with her on almost everything but not very interested in politics himself, well-off enough to support her education/ campaigning, and calls her The Boss.

schiller1979 said...

I agree that, as president, Sen. Clinton would need to walk that very thin tightrope, being feminine enough without being too feminine.

But on foreign policy, that leaves her in what I consider to be a good place. I'm rather hawkish on the war on Islamism, but would like to see more of a soft-power element than we've seen from the current administration. (Also, I would hope, less ineptitude. But the military, as with all of government, tends to be pretty inept, no matter who is leading it.) I think she would have gone in a more soft-power direction, but would have been constrained from being too soft, due to her gender.

Kevin Moore said...

Senator Clinton was one of 100 politicians elected to represent 300 million Americans by exercising judgment and care in matters of life and death affecting the nation as a whole. She was also among 36 Democrats who voted for the authorization of war powers against Iraq, who looked at the case the Bush Administration made for war and completely disregarded evidence to the contrary. Is her excuse that she was bullied by sexists? Or is she actually an adult, a political elite, a veteran of White House politics (surely she had experience with propaganda coming from the executive branch before becoming Senator), someone who should have exercised critical thinking when thousands of lives are in the balance?

I find this argument sexist and infantilizing toward Senator Clinton. She should take responsibility for her actions, good or bad. Of course there is a sexist culture in Washington! Democrats have been buying into it for decades. That's the problem!

Meanwhile the real victims are the soldiers who have died fighting the mess, the ones who continue to fight, their families, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died since the invasion.

Anonymous said...

Clinton didn't have to use macho metaphors to seem tough. There are lots of female leaders (Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel etc) who have come across as tough, but not primarily tried to present themselves as warriors. There are non-violent metaphors of strength, both ungendered (unmoving rock) and specific to strong women (going through childbirth, protecting your family etc). By chosing male metaphors of combat (and having her supporters emphasize her 'balls'), Clinton is simply reinforcing US political stereotypes.