Seeing Sexism

Election '08

It's not easy to see sexism. It's such a part of our lives it seems invisible. It's in us and outside us. We want not to believe in it---until something---like men making fun of Hillary Clinton, like women making fun of Hillary Clinton---stirs it up. And then something inside our heads shouts: "THERE IT IS AGAIN! I thought--I truly hoped we were past this."

The truth is, we want sexism to be passé. We don't want to keep fighting it. It's so uncool to fight it. We sound so shrill, so whining, so strident, so piercing, so shrewish, so female. For these are all coded adjectives for women you hate. We hate them ourselves. We don't want to be shrill, shrewish, strident, whining, piercing. We want to be cool. We want to hold our own, we want not to waver, not to be high-pitched, not to betray our femaleness, our weakness. And yet our voices are higher than men's and we are less listened to in the agora. We are always tokens.

On most charitable boards I sit, on every prize committee I deliberate, on most writers' panels, I am a token. One woman and seven men, two women and fourteen men, three women and twenty-one men. I hate being a token. I wish it were otherwise. Unlike those nasty women of yesteryear--Clare Boothe Luce, Ilka Chase--the women who inspired The Women--I have no stake in being queen bee. I want a 50--50 world. But the world is not that way. So tedious, old-time feminism must rear its shrieking Medusa head again.

The Greeks got it. Medusa's snaky head, the sex-strike in Lysistrata, Medea's fury in Greek myth and tragedy.

The truth is we have been trying to assert women's rights (and wrongs) for a long time. Too, too long, in fact. No wonder everyone is turned off. From Mary Wollstonecraft to Susan B. Anthony to Eleanor Roosevelt to Germaine Greer to Gloria Steinem is at least two and a half centuries. And before that, Mary Magdalene was smeared by the damned disciples, Cleopatra by Shakespeare, Hatshepsut by all those Egyptian dudes and doubtless even the Sumerian earth goddess. Too fat, too shrill, too monomaniacal, say the cool men. And the cool women echo it.

What? Life begins in the womb? Women are the life force? How unfair! Didn't Samuel Johnson--that old bore, say: "Nature has given women so much power that the law wisely gives her little." The Greek tragedians smeared a lot of women too, but they were shrewder observers of life than our present day guy writers. At least they had the myths to set them straight. So they knew women were fierce from being raped so often and they knew the rapists (usually men) deserved everything they got.

So now we have the cool dudes saying Hillary is dead, the fall of the house of Clinton is here, baby-boomers are so over, don't trust those wrinklies (British for your parents' generation), youth is roaring again, hope is the watchword, Obama has a feminist wife and two cute little girls, he'll fight for us. And the cool chicks echo it: Hillary is over, we have our rights, we have the pill, we have the patch, we have the IUD, we have the vote, we have nannies for our kids, so what about the retrenchment on Roe, so what about the Right to Lifers, so what about my mother's battles? Over and done. Passe. Youth has come in the person of Barack. Male? Not really. Think of his wife. Two for the price of one--like Billary in 1992. But will Ms. Obama be the prez? Not really. Power behind the throne. Same old, same old. We seem to have forgotten that we did this all before.

But it's different this time, say the women of my daughter's generation. We've won the battle. We don't need the White House. Say what? We don't need it? We're past it? We have all heard that before, too. It's an old, old story. Hillary is the establishment? Hillary stole the vote in New Hampshire? Hillary is passé. Hillary is too close to Bill. Hillary is not close enough to Bill. Hillary is calculating. Hillary is cold. Hillary cried. (Actually, she didn't cry -- as Jon Stewart and I pointed out). She just looked human. She showed a teeny bit of vulnerability. UNFAIR! They scream. FEMININE WILES! They scream. The heart of being a woman is to be always in the wrong.

Let's be honest here. We don't know how a female President would act. But we could look around. I know America is a provincial country, but we could look at Germany, Ireland, England, Pakistan, India, Argentina, and Finland--to name a few. We could ask why the USA, out of all the so-called "civilized" countries, is so damned afraid of a woman leader.

We could look at the invisible sexism--as Gloria Steinem has been asking us to do for nearly half a century. We could acknowledge that a multiracial male president with a fierce feminist wife would be great for America, but maybe we should break the invisible gender barrier first. Yes, blacks have been hideously oppressed, but so have women--and black women know this better than white women do. We have been tokens for so long that most of us just take it for granted. The flaying of Hillary Clinton shows us we can take nothing for granted. We need to break that tough, annealed, glass ceiling with the barbed wire over it. And we need to break it now.

If this is the politics of gender, so be it. We need a politics of gender in this country. Obama is a good man who will only get better. Youth is on his side. Perhaps Hillary will appoint him to the Supreme Court where he can counter that embarrassing Clarence Thomas. Perhaps he will be President in 2016 or perhaps, even better, Michelle Obama will be. They have nothing but time.

Hillary's time has come.

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