Sexism and Racism

After reading Gloria Steinem's op-ed, Brian Beutler reflects that what we've been seeing "may answer a question a friend of mine hinted at long ago: Is America more racist than sexist? In politics? More sexist." That's not quite how I would put it.

Dahlia Lithwick, reacting to Steinem says "The real contrast between Obama and Clinton lies not in this who’s-carrying-a-greater-burden sweepstakes. It’s that he figured out how to transcend labels and she tried to do so by turning herself into an android."

That, I think, is closer to the mark. But here's where being black is less of a handicap than being a woman. American society is awash in certain negative stereotypes of African-Americans, especially African-American men. But it's possible for any individual African-American to "transcend" those stereotypes by simply not living up to them. So Barack Obama can't afford to show the kind of populist outrage John Edwards expresses lest he be deemed a threatening radical, but if he avoids falling into pitfalls of stereotype he winds up getting praised in a somewhat condescending, but still helpful to his political career, manner as "one of the good ones."

A woman faces a very different problem. A woman who's seen as possessing the stereotypical characteristics of femininity won't do well in presidential politics. But a woman who's seen as lacking those characteristics will be penalized as well. The female politician can't be too femme or too butch, and she can't be androgynous either. That's why, as Kerry Howley sagely observed in The New York Times, frequently the only way for a woman politician to break through is by more-or-less riding the coattails of a male husband or father. Once some critical mass of women acquire political power, it becomes possible to start creating new models of political behavior. But right now, our model of executive leadership is heavily male-coded, but insufficiently feminine women are disparaged so widespread sexist assumptions create an inescapable trap.