I wrote this paper for PSY 310: Psychology of Women, at Portland State University. I highly recommend the book Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine, PhD. Fine’s accessible and provocative text is required reading in Portland State’s PSY 310. Bolded statements in my paper are meant to make it easier to read; nothing is bolded in the paper I turned in to my professor.
Twenty-one different biographies of Hillary Rodham Clinton fill up a shelf at Multnomah County’s Central Library in downtown Portland, Oregon. Taking a glance at the text on the jacket flaps of each of these books, readers will discover, without ever entering the books’ inside pages, that seven out of 21 of the Clinton biographies are extremely negative in their portrayal of the Secretary of State. The Truth about Hillary, by Edward Klein, stands out among the negative biographies with its shockingly provocative passage on the inside jacket:
“She’s a wife, but shows no wifely instincts. She’s a mother, but she isn’t maternal. She’s a feminist, but she rode to power on her husband’s coattails. She’s strong and assertive, but she has abetted decades of chronic infidelity. She inspires fierce loyalty among her followers, but she frequently stabs them in the back.” (Klein, 2005)
Here, the author focuses his attack on not on Clinton as a leader, but instead on her supposed failures as a woman, a wife, and a mother. He capitalizes on mean-girl stereotypes of women as backstabbers. Rivers (2007) highlights Klein’s suggestion that Clinton is lesbian, and his claim that her daughter Chelsea was the result of marital rape (p. 76). Klein’s is arguably more of a personal attack than a political one. The book was “dismissed as trash by many conservatives, including Peggy Noonan and Bill O’Reilly,” wrote Caryl Rivers in her book Selling Anxiety: How the Media Scare Women. Yet The Truth about Hillary became a number-two New York Times bestseller just days after it was published in 2005.
Media sexism regarding women in politics is hardly a new phenomenon. It effected first-wave feminists in the 1910s, 20s, and earlier as much as it effects female politicians and voters today. However, I decided to focus on just the past eight years of sexist portrayals of women political leaders: 2004 to 2011.
The pivotal 2008 campaigns, including Clinton’s, arguably began—unofficially at least—four years earlier when George W. Bush won a second term as president. The year 2007 saw Nancy Pelosi become the first female Speaker of the House, and a year later Sarah Palin could have become the first female Vice President. President Obama made his once-rival Clinton America’s third female Secretary of State, and during the Obama Administration two women have joined the Supreme Court as justices: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen. Although she has recently sunk in popularity, Michelle Bachmann was a favored 2012 presidential contender in the early months of 2011.
These past eight years have marked achievements and controversies for women political leaders, as each one of these powerful women continues to face sexism in the media and on the job.
I take a liberal feminist approach in arguing that, while women and men are both harmed by media sexism in American federal politics, women bear the vast majority of the burden of gendered stereotypes in political leadership. While some male politicians have been feminized as a form of attack, virtually all women politicians encounter sexism—particularly stereotypes that masculinize them and tear them down as mothers and wives.
Attacks on American politicians’ gender roles effect both female and male political leaders. Women politicians may be accused of mannish looks, poor mothering, or lesbianism—while male politicians are sometimes torn down by being feminized.
Rivers (2007) uses the example of media portrayals of “Teresa Heinz Kerry as tough and mannish, [while] her war-hero husband was pictured as wavering, foppish, and rather unmanly—despite the fact that he steered his swift boat right into enemy fire during the Vietnam War. […] Howard Dean […] became an irrational (dare we say feminized) hysteric in the eyes of the media” (p. 78). Wherever gender and gender stereotypes are used as a weapon of political smear campaigns, both women and men are being insulted and attacked, and the victims are both candidates and voters.
Liberal and Democratic voices are hardly the only ones falling victim to gendered attacks on candidates and leaders. Many liberals, especially liberal women, regard conservative and Republican women with scorn. Liberals and Democrats may assume that conservative women are foolish for supporting causes that, to liberals, appear to restrict women’s right to control their own bodies and to achieve economic and social equality with men.
This liberal scorn is exactly what Schreiber (2008), a feminist herself, warns against: “Chastising conservative women for their relationship to powerful conservatives [especially conservative men] undermines women’s political power and agency” (p. 28). Agency—an individual as an independent actor, making her own choices, in her own story—is just as important to many antifeminists as it is to feminists.
Schreiber’s book Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics contends that conservative women—some of them self-described antifeminists—must not be dismissed by liberals. Conservative women—and the political action groups in which they participate—are clearly a boon for conservative men, but these women should never be ignored or dismissed by feminists.
According to Schreiber, “As women’s political clout grows, and as these particular activists continue to institutionalize their work, we should expect to see a conservative women’s movement in formation. For conservatives, this is good news, but for feminists it means the necessity to clarify and specify movement claims, and requires accounting for women who take issue with feminist policies and goals” (p. 25). Many women and men, both conservative and liberal, consider feminism to be an F-word.
Susan J. Douglas (2010) explores the idea of feminism as an F-word in her book Enlightened Feminism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done:
“Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” (p. 9)
Douglas is a professor of communications, and her book focuses completely on media portrayals of women in politics and pop culture. She continues her definition of enlightened sexism, writing that it “is the knowing wink [.…] the objectification of women is now fine; why, it’s actually a joke on the guys. It’s silly to be sexist; therefore, it’s funny to be sexist” (p. 13). Douglas is talking about gendered stereotypes that are more subtle than Klein’s blatant accusations of Clinton being a bad mother. Instead, this sexism is often disguised as comedy, and that makes it particularly difficult for feminists to address without being misinterpreted as crabby reactionaries who have no sense of humor.
Plenty of feminists have great senses of humor, but it seems as if few of these funny feminists are in the public spotlight defending women leaders. Exceptions to this rule are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who famously lampooned both Palin and Clinton on Saturday Night Live in 2008—while also granting both politicians the chance to visit the show and participate in the comedy.
Among the many popular sketches commenting on Palin and Clinton was a February 23, 2008 segment on “Weekend Update,” in which Fey addresses the complaint that Clinton is a bitch: “Yeah, she is. And so am I [….] Bitches get stuff done.” The shock value of mild profanity was not the point of the skit; rather, Fey aimed to draw viewers’ attention to media stereotypes of women leaders, particularly those in politics. Leaders who display assertiveness and verbal aggression may be seen as steadfastly defending their opinions if they are men, while if they are women their behavior is interpreted as bitchiness and power-mad backstabbing.
Here’s a link to the SNL skit: http://www.hulu.com/watch/10236/saturday-night-live-tina-fey-on-update
However, some women leaders may not display their assertiveness in the same way as their male peers. Paludi and Coates (2011) talk about “research findings from the social sciences that suggest women leaders embrace the following values in their work: inclusion, honesty, nurturance, participation, collaboration, communication, and gender and race equity” (p. xxii), in their book Women as Transformational Leaders: from Grassroots to Global Interests. This echoes discussions of gender differences in leadership styles reported in Douglas (2010).
Douglas critiques the portrayals of fictional women leaders in TV shows such as the CSI and Law & Order franchises, as well as ER. She writes in admiration of these fictional females’ abrasive aggressiveness and their use of sharp direct orders in their speech with subordinates. These TV female supervisors are “one of the guys—just as tough, just as no nonsense, just as inclined to think the worst of people—with few of the soft, accommodating edges most women have had to learn to cultivate on the job” (p. 281).
But Douglas also points out that these traits may not reflect the leadership styles of real-life women supervisors. “Now while it’s true that I don’t really know any female police lieutenants, the women I do know in positions of authority don’t talk like this—hell, even the men I know in positions of authority don’t talk like this—although it’s true I’m in academics, not criminal justice” (p. 281).
Women’s and men’s leadership-style differences must be considered with a critical eye, as should all claims of gender difference. We must remember that there are far more similarities between the genders than there are differences, and question whether differences are biological, or the result of different socialization that women and men experience beginning at a very young age.
Male leaders should value collaboration, compromise, and the act of asking for advice—all traditionally female values. Journalists, pundits, entertainers, and the public should value assertiveness in women leaders instead of dismissing strength and courage as bitchiness.
Douglas, S. J. (2010). Enlightened sexism: the seductive message that feminism’s work is done. New York, NY: Times Books.
Klein, Edward (2005). The truth about Hillary: what she knew, when she knew it, and how far she’ll go to become President. New York, NY: Sentinel.
Paludi, M. A. & Coates, B. E. (Eds.). (2011). Women as transformational leaders: from grassroots to global interests. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Rivers, C. (2007). Selling anxiety: how the news media scare women. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Schreiber, R. (2008). Righting feminism: conservative women and American politics. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.