Gender discrimination: Part of larger issue in U.S. politics

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On September 21, 2010, Fresh Air (a program on National Public Radio) aired the review of Rebecca Traister’s book Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women (refer to this link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129938556


The challenges women face are not exclusive to politics. The artistic talent and maternal roles of women, showcased by the media and networks, often overshadow women’s intellect and their strategic influence in a wide array of industries (not just in music and fashion). Advertisements and music videos (to a lesser extent TV programs and movies) tend to portray women as seductive, flirtatious, manipulative or emotional.  What does it say when a highly rated TV show on a major network is titled Desperate Housewives; and when popular so-called reality TV shows on the cable channels, geared towards women, have titles like The Real Housewives of… and Bridezillas?

It is troubling to have spoken with women, of my generation and my parent’s generation, who find little issue with the interchange of tank top and “wife beater”.  This denigrating term for an article of clothing, coupled with derogatory references to the female anatomy, project and reinforce the image of women as submissive, weak and wicked.  There are no comparable words as base and disparaging towards men: terms referring to the male appendage are analogous to a black person calling a white person a “honky”—there is no white equivalent for the “n” word. It is more appropriate to refer to someone’s “intestinal fortitude” or “guts” instead of a gender-specific body part to imply strength or frailty.

Upon reading the review and excerpt from Traister’s book, I submitted the following commentary to NPR.  My thoughts extend beyond the misogynistic stereotypes to the broader issue of societal intolerance and how it is used as a divisive and polarizing tool to win political campaigns (by discrediting political opponents and preying on people’s fears—in today’s politics it is one in the same).



Hillary Rodman Clinton was involved in several policies during the two-terms of her husband’s presidency, bringing more attention to the role of women in the governmental branch. She was thfirst woman to live on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a post-graduate education, a professional career as a lawyer, and to have an office in the West Wing of the White Office. Mrs. Clinton was well-traveled having visited more than 80 countries as the First Lady, and as an advocate of peace, equality and democracy.

Many people remember Hillary Clinton as the chairperson on the Task Force for the controversial Clinton Health Care Plan in 1993, which died in Congress. It was dubbed by detractors as ‘HillaryCare’. (The inchoate signs of Hillary haters were expressed during Bill Clinton’s administration because of her involvement on policies.) She played an important role in passing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997 with Senate bi-partisan support. First Lady Clinton worked with Attorney General Janet Reno to establish the Office on Violence Against Women, and she helped to pioneer the Adoptions and Safe Family Act in 1997. Her role in the implementation of these policies and programs is often overlooked.

Hillary Clinton leveraged her experience in the White House to launch a political career, first by winning the United States Senate seat of NY in 2001. (The Clintons moved to New York in 1999 after Patrick Moynihan retired from the U.S. Senate [D – NY] in 1998, a maneuver referred disreputably as ‘carpet-bagging’.) She was an active Senator, having served on five Senate committees.

Senator Clinton was vilified by the politically charged white male privilege campaign during the Democratic presidential primary in 2008. There were a slew of misogynistic slogans, images and commentaries from the right as well as from the left such as Chris Matthews of MSNBC likening her to a “she-devil” and comparing her to a “strip-teaser”—sexism has no political affiliations among men. One of the more popular online items during the primaries was the Hillary nutcracker.

Although Senator Clinton was unfairly characterized by the media, she shared in the sabotage of her own credibility. The former First Lady’s recollection of the “dangerous mission” to Bosnia in 1996 was justifiably questioned, given that her daughter, Chelsea (age 16 at the time), Sinbad, and Sheryl Crow, were on the same flight. The Tuzla U.S. Air Base, where the plane landed, was the safest location in the area. Footage of the First Lady being greeted by a Bosnian girl with flowers (not “under sniper fire”) undermined her integrity as a presidential candidate. Then there was her regrettable reference, in May 2008, to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination when questioned why she was still in the Democratic race (her chances of winning the nomination were quickly dwindling).

Early on Senator Clinton was the front runner for the Democratic nomination. She became a ‘primary’ target for Hillary haters during the debates; it intensified when she paired off with the U.S. freshman Senator from Illinois.

Initially, I thought Barack Obama was too green to enter the 2008 Democratic race: he had less than one term in office as United States Senator of IL. Obama needed more time to mature in Congress—to become a recognizable figure. Wait until 2012! Although I was riveted by his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I did not think Barack Obama had the prestige, stamina or the fire power to tussle with Senator Clinton. But Obama’s successful book in 2006 Audacity of Hope raised his popularity and transformed his image from an upcoming political star to a rock star, virtually overnight.

Barack Obama had to overcome obstacles as a black man with an African name rooted in Arabic. He elevated his political credentials as a resilient and articulate presidential candidate during a tumultuous time in his campaign when he gave “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, addressing Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory remarks and the role of race.  Senator Obama confronted racial and bigoted attacks from the right, including claims of being a Muslim sympathizer in an attempt to link him to terrorism. Obama was also undercut by moderate white Democrats (uncomfortable with the prospect of a Black president), and by tactics from Senator Clinton and her husband (intended to subvert his character and minify his credibility). More criticism, latent with racial tenor, (mainly from Conservatives) has been directed at President Obama in comparison to when he was running for the Oval Office.

All Democratic candidates running for President of the United States—regardless of race, gender, creed or service—risk going through the Republican gauntlet. From the onset of the 2004 presidential contest, members of George Walker Bush’s administration and cabinet attacked and characterized Democratic nominee and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, as an indecisive politician unfit to serve as the country’s commander and chief and to defend our nation against terrorism. During the election campaign, a group of former Vietnam Veterans formed an alliance called Swift Boat Veterans of Truth and ran deceptive ads claiming Kerry was a liar who turned his back on the troops, yet most of the SBVT members had never served with him in Vietnam.

The Republicans capitalized on every opportunity to discredit Senator Kerry. He was ridiculed for an innocent mispronunciation of Lambeau Field (referring to it as “Lambert Field”) and mocked for being shifty when Bush’s campaign aired footage of him windsurfing off of Nantucket in September 2004. John Kerry was also portrayed as a wealthy elitist even though George Bush Jr. and his family lived on a 1600-acre ranch in Prairie Chapel, TX, which included a main house, a guest house, separate garages, a helicopter hanger, a swimming pool (for his daughters), an 11-acre man-made pond stocked for fishing, two rivers, seven canyons and much more landscape within the property.

It is extraordinary that a white man from an upper class family, who volunteered for Vietnam War, and was injured multiple times in combat, would have his reputation as well as his intrepid service in Vietnam and his medals of bravery diminished and satirized. Ironically, Bush Jr. signed up for National Guard to avoid going to Vietnam. If a decorated war veteran and seasoned senator of a majority race and gender can be denigrated, surely a white female candidate and a black male candidate would expect to endure their share of unfair caricatures, mistruths, bigotry and vitriol.

Sexism, racism and non-white phobias are more visceral and far reaching than the dirty tactics of mudslinging. Perhaps there is a relationship in the evolution of American politics and discrimination that is deeply rooted in U.S. history. The philosophy of this nation was born of a collective elitist intellect. However, the founding fathers incorporated their own prejudgments, stereotypes and self-interest in developing the doctrine of our constitution. The Three-Fifth Compromise in 1787 was an arrangement to appease Northerners and Southerners by representing slaves as a fraction of a person for state taxation and to count slaves as 3/5 of a person in the state’s House of Representatives; not as citizens or potential voters. The treatment of slaves as a statistic to satisfy the electorate is no less racist than the rationale of using slaves as involuntary servants. The provision was not removed until after the Civil War when slavery was abolished. Blacks were eventually allowed to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Women were not allowed to vote until 50 years later with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (nearly 130 years after the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments, was passed in 1791).

In light of homophobic rhetoric, controversy regarding gay marriage, and the filibuster of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy by Republican Senators, what are the chances of an openly gay presidential candidate becoming commander and chief of our armed forces? The fundamental problem with DADT policy is that it promotes deception which, in turn, undermines one of the military core values: integrity. Troop morale should not be contingent on one’s sexuality; honor, trust, selflessness, and loyalty unify soldiers and solidify the chain of command.

The social attitudes and fears invoking gender discrimination, racism and homophobia are as insidious today as it was during momentous times in U.S. history when minorities were the center of a heated debate, whether it was the Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, giving women the legal right to abortion, or the height of the AIDS epidemic. The debate on immigration coupled with a post 9/11 climate has amplified the nation’s xenophobic tendencies, and it has provoked several politicians at all levels of the government to initiate policies aimed at alienating and discriminating non-U.S. citizens or U.S. citizens who do not look like they belong in America.

It was just over 50 years ago when Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a speech on religion and politics to address the concerns on whether a Catholic can run the country. Eventually, this nation will tolerate—not necessarily accept—minorities in power, but it will take a larger proportion of the population and strong individuals with persuasive ideals to penetrate our preconceptions and to raze the wall of fear, terror and ignorance.

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