Gender in Politics
With the historic presidential election of 2008, many might believe that racism is over, and some might be tempted to think that sexism is also a thing of the past.
A sociological perspective on these issues shows us that race and gender are still used to differentiate people, although the sexist and racist dimensions may be more hidden than they were in the past. Yes, we have made much progress, but if history teaches us anything, it is when we step forward that we are also very likely to fall backward.
The public discussions of Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama give us plenty of examples of how stereotypes and generalizations are sometimes used to subtly or not-so-subtly denigrate women who seek positions of power.
As John McCain’s running mate, Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) was disparaged as ignorant, even stupid, an attractive former beauty queen “whack job”, who was also greedy for designer clothes. Her news interviews demonstrated an apparent lack of information and understanding of national and international issues, but among both supporters and critics her looks dominated much of the discussion about her.
The Republican Party announced that they funded a spending spree of $150,000 for her campaign trail wardrobe of designer clothing.. That subsequent press reports stating that she hadn’t asked for the clothes and that she gave the clothes back or donated them didn’t dispel the negative impressions of the initial story. Tina Fey’s depictions of her on Saturday Night Live (and Palin’s appearance on the show) kept the stories alive and also provided another venue to call attention to her attractiveness. News pundits referred to her as a “hot hockey mom,” a label she herself inspired with her “lipstick” remarks. ("You know, they say, the difference between a Hockey Mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.")
By linking her beauty to a powerful breed of dog considered by many to be aggressive, she also relied on traditional notions of masculinity in her candidacy. Her image as a rugged Alaska hunter was just as central to the campaign as her image as a mother and former beauty queen was.
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) has had many years of public attention and scrutiny. During the Clinton presidency, she gained public condemnation for her interest in policy and public support for talking about the White House pets, recipes, and raising children. Her biggest public approval ratings came when she became the scorned wife and stayed with her spouse when his extra marital sexual liaisons made the headlines – not surprising since this was conforming to role expectations many still have for women.
Since the election, Michelle Obama has been praised for her fashion sense and for mixing clothing from both high-end stores and lower-end bargain chains. But during the campaign, she was sometimes described as unattractive and angry – two words that signal tremendous disapproval when they are assigned to a woman (especially to a black woman). A New Yorker cover depicted both of the Obamas as terrorists (in a cartoon that was supposedly as satire, depending on your point of view), but she was the dominant figure, wearing combat boots, holding a weapon, and sporting a 60s-style Afro.
The cover cartoon reminds us that throughout the campaign Michelle Obama was the victim of both racial and gender stereotyping . While Palin and Clinton are stuck with the gendered stereotypes about intelligence (or the lack of it) and the sanctions about stepping outside women’s traditional social roles, their patriotism and identity as Americans was never in question.
Historically, black women have been subject to a complex array of stereotypes, and unfortunately Michelle Obama is no exception. Comments about Michelle Obama that deserve scrutiny include vaguely negative remarks about how her mother will come to the White House to “raise” the girls, and sharper criticisms that she supposedly “hates America” because of her “angry militancy”.
In response to a caller who “knew” about Obama’s anger and called her a “militant woman” Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels." He has subsequently apologized for his statements, but mentioning lynching as a response to anything much less someone being labeled as angry or even militant is as obvious as racism can get.
Michelle Obama – who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, by the way – is a Harvard-educated lawyer and former health care executive, yet the press has been focused more on her personality and her body than on her considerable accomplishments. Post-election, there is even more focus on her clothing choices, her legs, and her workout ethic. Notably, she has softened her public image by telling reporters that she plans to be "first mom."
So in 2008 three women in the political spotlight have been caricatured: one as a hot ignoramus who hunts, one as a political shrew who stuck by her man, and one as an angry militant who has fashion sense. All are subject to stereotypes about gender, and those stereotypes detract from what should be a focus on their qualifications for the positions they seek.