Monday, June 2, 2008

The Politicization of Feminism: Why Geraldine Ferraro is Not Good for Women

A few weeks ago, when asked by Detroit reporter Peggy Agar how he plans to help American autoworkers, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama replied, "Hold on one second, sweetie, we'll do a press avail, thanks."

This has now been immortalized as the "Sweetie-gate" scandal, and admittedly, it was disturbing. I couldn't understand how Barack Obama, a man with a remarkably accomplished mother (whom Hawaii Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie once called "the original feminist"), a strong independent grandmother, an equally accomplished and successful wife, and two young daughters, turned out to be such a closeted sexist.

My concerns cleared a little when I went down to the cafeteria at my hospital where I have lunch every day and know pretty much all of the cashiers. As she does every day, the friendliest one (who I always try to go to) said, "Thanks, honey!" as she handed me my change. I realized that in the four years that I've worked there, I have also been called "sugar", "darlin'", "sweetheart", "love" - and one of our secretaries even calls me "babe" fairly often.

They are all women. And I am a man (pending just one more karyotype test - pray for me). I don't particularly think of myself as sexually attractive. To be honest, I have several unappetizing stretch marks on my ass. But I've gotten every term of endearment there is. Specially when I've traveled in the South.

So I had lunch, quietly wondering if I should be offended. I thought of the details, the minutia: this was about a man saying it to a woman in a professional environment; women say it to other women too, not only to men; but men don't call other men sweetie! Then the counter-arguments: men do call each other bro, pal, man, amigo, and dude in the same spirit - the difference in semantics isn't necessarily a difference in intent based on the receptive gender, is it? And how do you define "professional" anyway? Does cafeteria interaction between cashier and other employees qualify?

Shortly after this story broke, I realized I wasn't the only one poring over this incredible outing of a major presidential candidate's overt misogyny and disrespect of women, which he had managed to hide so well over the years.

There was also Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate in American history, addressing the Sweetie-gate scandal on Fox News (watch 3 minutes and 20 seconds in), and talking to Meredith Viera on NBC's Today Show about how sexist Barack Obama's campaign has been (see clip below).

She mentioned "several" campaign incidents, notably when during a stump speech, Obama, in a gesture demonstrating how he deals with "dirty" Washington politics, brushed imaginary dirt off his shoulders, in this clip.

Ferraro interpreted this as "diminishing" Clinton, alleging that it was sexist and offensive.


Sitting by her was NBC and Air America's brilliant Rachel Maddow, a feminist in her own right, visibly stunned. She civilly attempted to counter Ferraro when she accused all of the candidates in the December 2007 Democratic primary debate of "ganging up" on Hillary Clinton. (Note: Yes, Clinton was running against seven men who she was beating handily in the polls; as any male or female frontrunner would be, she was attacked by her trailing competitors.)

Watch Maddow's response to Ferraro's examples 4 minutes and 50 seconds into the video:

At one point in this clip, Ferraro even refers to Obama as a "typical man" (2 minutes and 20 seconds in).

Ferraro, one of Hillary Clinton's most respected campaign advisors, was dropped from the campaign in March 2008 for the controversy she caused by alleging that Barack Obama has the stature he has in the country because he's black. She further defended her comments afterwards, alleging discrimination against her because she's white.


First, I think Geraldine Ferraro deserves an enormous amount of respect not only for being the first female vice presidential candidate in US history, but for her record as a civil rights activist and her work as ambassador for the UN Commission on Human Rights during Bill Clinton's presidency.

Second, I agree that there has been an extraordinary amount of sexism in this campaign. I do think that a lot of the opposition to Hillary Clinton is because she is Hillary Clinton. But I do think, unfortunately, that a significant proportion of that opposition has been because she is a woman.

As I referenced in a previous post, this Rebecca Traister Salon piece is an excellent analysis of this pretty disturbing aspect of the primary race. I also think Geraldine Ferraro makes an excellent point in the Today Show interview (clip above) when she talks about the disgusting "Iron My Shirt" incident (click here to watch) that Clinton was subjected to during one of her speeches earlier this year. She is right - the incident would have garnered significantly more media attention and sympathy if it was racist in nature. I agree with her that sexism is somehow more easily accepted in society than racism.

But the reason people will pay less attention to Geraldine Ferraro's valid points is because she peppers them amid so many unrelatable, invalid ones. The "Iron My Shirt" incident is an example of the very serious, horrific kind of misogyny that can form a basis for discussion and education - it would be hard to imagine any reasonable woman or man not being able to feel the blatant offense in it.

But lumping it in during the same seven minute stretch with the shoulder-brushing incident and Sweetie-gate trivializes it. It turns people's minds off from the big picture by virtually invalidating it.

Unfortunately, "feminist" has become a bad word over the last two decades, just as (for the sake of analogy) "Muslim" has become a bad word in around the same time. In the same way that the word "Muslim" is now associated with the image of bearded, turbaned, uneducated terrorists, the word "feminist" has come to be associated with angry, man-hating, bra-burning, extremist women. This is simply because both of these movements have been politicized to ridiculous, unchecked levels by the infiltration and subsequent rise of radical, agenda-driven loudmouths who have hijacked them.

And Geraldine Ferraro is not doing a whole lot to help that. Sadly, she is perpetuating it. By focusing on 'Gotcha!' type pseudo-sexism, she is not only alienating men who, like Barack Obama, are very obviously not sexist yet are being accused of it; she is also alienating girls, boys, men, and women around the world who can't relate to her views. She is distancing women like Rachel Maddow, who emphatically expressed her disagreement with Ferraro in the Viera interview, and is probably, in almost all aspects, the perfect example of what the modern woman (or man, for that matter) today should be like. The only legitimate issue mentioned in that interview - the "Iron My Shirt" incident - was virtually overlooked and buried under the pseudo-gotcha stuff.

The feminist movement has to be taken back from those using it for political motive. The very word "feminist" needs to go back to its association with women like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, the pre-2008 Hillary Clinton, and more recently, Rebecca Walker and Maddow herself.

Finally, saying as Ferraro did that she may not vote for Obama "if" Clinton doesn't get the nomination means that she - still an influence and role model for so many women that believe in and live her values - is willing to lead her supporters to elect John McCain, directly, or indirectly by not voting.

She would prefer to withdraw her support from a candidate that has grown up among strong, independent, educated, accomplished women, who supports and understands their issues - and instead opt for a party that is anti-women's reproductive rights, anti-family friendly policies (like modifying the Family and Medical Leave Act, for instance), is associated with countless extremist sexist religious "leaders", and prefers tax cuts for CEOs to those for single mothers.


I guess she does have a point. McCain has never simulated brushing anything (anyone?) off his shoulders - and who can imagine a conservative calling a woman sweetie? Right?

Click here to see where else people are politicizing the feminist cause!

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