Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Prepositions of Power

Yesterday's NY Times OpEd by Gloria Steinem can be found here:
Steinem, not one to skirt (or blouse, or tank-top) an issue, takes on the role of women in the political arena - including female candidates, political opinions, and voters at large. Steinem doesn't cast sheep eyes at a problem instead of attacking it, head on - and she makes some insightful comments worth some inner reflection. Some of her opinions are none too out of the ordinary vein for her, including her evaluation that: "anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race;" we've seen that argument before, executed to great effect in her more literary-revolutionary pieces such as "If Men Could Menstruate" (read here:
But truly, Steinem's introduction using an image of the disregarded female biography is a good device, in that it mirrors the kind of attempts made by earlier feminists, such as Virginia Woolf, who in A Room of One's Own set up the fictional/theoretical narrative of "Shakespeare's Sister," and how, despite Judith Shakespeare's equal talents, she is forgotten, downtrodden, and completely anonymous -- she truly is shrouded in the half-life of feminist fiction, unable to be heard, read, or even widely acknowledged. It is a sad state of affairs indeed that what was written in the late 1920s still rings true today, in earsplitting, misogynistic knells. What Woolf said and hoped for back then, on the surface, was a modest proposal: a small salary and living space entirely for a woman, making her independent and relatively free to create and fulfill her potential. And in most cases today, women do have the ability to obtain what Woolf had aspired to, yet the other, larger message of Woolf, echoed in Steinem's writings, is the need not for women to merely reform themselves, but for the ability of the entire populous to live in a sort of quasi-androgynous state, meaning that sexual politics are completely dead on arrival, and value judgements are made regardless of sex, race, orientation, class, etc. Unfortunately, this is an utopia that, like Steinem would like to remind young women ("What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system") cannot be fully realized by any stretch of the imagination or stretch of affirmative action, or stretch of legislation - there still persists inherent prejudices, and even more pervasive, the idea that sexism is "confused with nature," and women are legitimately stereotyped because of some kind of genetic process, and somehow these genetics, even if they were actually at play, amount to a deconstructive and somehow weaker biology compared to men.
As Steinem carefully points out, women are at a disadvantage in this voting cycle like all the ones before it -- they are accused of bias if they vote for the woman, and are deserters if they vote against her. Clinton cannot act "female" or show emotion, while they criticize her for being stony, while simultaneously and obsessively checking the humidity and calculating the possibility that she might, "tear up." Along with her campaign, she has to be wary of the sexual stereotypes that dog all women - body politics (what is she wearing, how does she look?), emotions, bitchiness, etc. And somehow, it seems that while it's okay for a woman to vote for a man (not that she usually has much else choice), a man faces barriers that have been constructed by the sense of his own masculinity. Even if a man chooses to vote for Clinton, nine times out of ten, that man will have considered the aesthetics and appropriateness of a man pulling a lever for a woman - the ultimate political hand job.
It is no surprise that people are able to dump upon a female candidate all these stunningly multifarious and contradicting labels - women throughout history have been the muse, always inspiring, never creating. Now that women want to make their own history and assert their latent creativity, people aren't ready to accept the outcomes. It is the shadow of the "behind every great man there is a great woman" mentality. In fact, to some extent, as horrible as it sounds, Hillary Clinton has played this role, during the nineties. But instead of receding into the political twilight of ex-presidents and their wives, Clinton has forged ahead with determination. Now is the time for women to skip the step of "standing by their man," -- we should have had enough with these degrading prepositions by now(behind, by, below, down, beside, outside, underneath, etc.). Let's retake the grammar of ill-intent, and claim the prepositions of power: among, inside, in front of, on top of, upon, within, and up.
As Steinem cites, our country is extremely backward when it comes to the comparison of other countries and the electability of women. Most European nations have had women in powerful, if not the most powerful positions, or at least have had women run fairly successful campaigns where the issue of their gender is not necessarily polarizing or a huge issue of debate (some European countries with past/present female leaders: UK, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Latvia, Finland, etc.). Even in countries that the current administration would like us to believe are extremely backward or have carried on an ideology of backwardness, such as Pakistan, India, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, North Korea, South Korea, Liberia, -- all have had (or currently have) female rulers in either the capacity of president or prime minister. (even China had a brief period of a woman in charge within the past century, though it is not officially recognized by the PRC).
Like religious rebuttals, and sexual orientation rights opposition -- gender is an overly pervasive and debated issue in politics to an overextended value, especially in comparison to European countries, Latin American countries, and even developing countries that we utter the word "backwards" or "tyrannical" in the same breath when describing their political systems. Some of the best run countries in the world don't sweat the stuff that Americans seem to be perspiring out the pores about at an alarming rate. The temperature of our state has to be regulated, and adjusted for unfair spikes in discriminatory feverishness.

Source for women in power data:

disclaimer: not an endorsement for Clinton, this blogger hasn't made up their mind yet!

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