Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hillary, Feminists and Culturists

The Educating Women Conference’s keynote speaker, Jane Roland Martin, chose Hillary Clinton and misogyny as her main topic. When a man is aggressive, she told us, people admire the trait. When a woman is aggressive she gets called the “b word.” This puts Clinton in a lose – lose situation. If she comes off as feminine, people will say she is not tough enough to be President. If she tells people she is tough, they consider her outside the pale of normal female behavior, an aberration, or even "a monster" Martin declared.

During the Q and A Martin got asked about Margaret Thatcher. Her reply was culturist on two fronts. First of all, she said, I do not know much and am not talking about other nations. Secondly, that nation has a tradition of strong women leaders going back to the first Queen Elizabeth. Yet even Elizabeth had to consider gender. The "Virgin Queen" put on armor to rally her troops against the Spanish. In her speech to the military she said, “I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king.” But, in a culturist move, Martin noted that Hillary is only running in America and so was only speaking about American culture.

The woman I spoke about at the conference, Frances Kellor, has been labeled an invert. That was the official term of the early 20th century for people who assumed the gender characteristics of the opposite sex. In my work I tried to show Kellor taking an increasingly male view of immigrants. The academic challenge question here is how to connect gender and policy. The feminist question is whether you can say men are like “x” and women are like “y” without being sexist. When we say Kellor acted like a man, we implicitly accept that there are male behaviors and female behaviors.

The conference was held in Chicago’s famous Hull House. This turn of the 20th century service center’s head was Jane Addams. Addams, likely the most famous woman of her times, was a gender essentialist. She believed women different and superior. She lost her fame when she consistently berated World War One as a man’s game. People thought her pacifism traitorous and unreasonable. If we say women are naturally mothering and nurturing, they may be reasonably disqualified for being President in a world of countries run by men. Our other alternative is to declare that there are no gender differences. But that does not seem right either.

Do men and women differ? Traditionally America has had a lot of tough women. The Puritan settlers, frontier sojourners and the film noir vixens were as tough as any man alive. Biology, sorry feminists, puts women and infants together. That does not mean, however, that women cannot be tough. Feminist thought is one of the great glories of the West. Traditional cultures treat women like beasts of burden. So while I will say long live gender differences, I will not say women cannot be tough or President. But to qualify women, like everyone else, have to be able to take the heat and stay in the kitchen. Thatcher was called the “Iron Lady.” It would be a loss for all of us, men and women alike, if women such as Thatcher could not run for office or lead a nation.
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