I’ve heard from a number of women, and read stories from a number of women, who find sexist the media (and public’s?) reaction to Hillary’s tearing up the other day. One example of such outrage was over this comment from John Edwards:
“Edwards, speaking at a press availability in Laconia, New Hampshire, offered little sympathy and pounced on the opportunity to bring into question Clinton’s ability to endure the stresses of the presidency. Edwards responded, ‘I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business.’”
Clearly, Edwards is hitting Hillary back for challenging Obama’s readiness for office. But some felt that this was sexist of Edwards: “Today he deployed against Hillary the oldest, dumbest canard about women: they’re too emotional to hold power.” Which gets into some interesting questions, after the jump…
Are women, on average, the same as men? Emotionally? Psychologically? In the way they approach problems and solutions? In the way they handle human relationships? When it comes to showing emotion? Is the charge “sexism” because someone is saying there is a difference between men and women or because someone is saying that the supposed difference makes women less qualified to be president, or both? (What if a female candidate were to say that the differences between the sexes make women MORE qualified than men – or at least her status as a woman makes her uniquely qualified – would that be sexist too?) Now take the word “woman” out of it altogether. Is it wrong for a candidate to say that their opponent is emotional, empathetic, and strives to settle differences peacefully, and that those aren’t qualities we need in a commander in chief during wartime? Is it okay to make those charges if you leave the word “woman” out of it? Then again, Edwards did leave the word woman out of it, but since his target was a woman, you could argue that it was implied. So is it okay to make those charges against a man who is emotional, empathetic and all the rest? Or is that sexist too, or even homophobic?
I’m not sure. Discrimination is a nuanced affair. You can make the same comment about a white man and a black man, or about a straight guy and a gay guy, and what was a funny joke suddenly becomes racist or homophobic. Why? Because historical context matters when discussing prejudice. It’s not that offensive to make fun of someone for being left-handed, but to suggest they’re limp-wristed is a no-no. Sure, both are simply benign physical attributes, but one is historically charged, in the same way that the degradation of women is historically charged. Is that why it’s wrong to comment on a woman being emotional? The same way it might be offensive, in some contexts, to suggest that a gay man is more sensitive?
I really don’t know. As someone who isn’t a member of the group in question (be it gay, black, woman, etc.) it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to recognize more nuanced bigotry against that group – you have to have lived with it for a lifetime to recognize the more subtle stuff. But having said that, every group has its members who just aren’t happy unless they can spot the daily bigot who’s holding them down. And if they can’t spot him, they’ll create him.