2012 Election Sexism Watch #10: “Much More Ladylike”

In case you missed it, Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin has again raised the ire of those who care about gender justice by stating that his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, was “much more ladylike” when she ran in 2006. He went on to say, “I think we have a very clear path to victory, and apparently Claire McCaskill thinks we do, too, because she was very aggressive at the debate, which was quite different than it was when she ran against Jim Talent.” (The Washington Post, and the Associated Press described the debate as more cordial.) In other words, Akin thinks that McCaskill’s unladylike aggressiveness at the debate will cause her to lose the election.

It’s rare to hear such a clear articulation of the double-bind of women’s leadership, where female leaders have to enact masculine traits to be considered “leaderly,” but this is then held against them because they aren’t being “properly ladylike.” I hope that Missouri voters are smarter than this, but maybe Akin is on to something. Several prominent Republicans who shunned Akin in August for his conflation of “forcible rape” with “legitimate rape,” endorsed him the day following his unrepentant “unladylike” statements. But it’s hard to say whether they were responding to this statement or his suggestion the next day that employers should be able to pay women less than men.

The close timing of these two overtly sexist statements begs the questions: Is Todd Akin purposefully exploiting potential sexism in the Missouri electorate to advance his campaign, and are notable Republicans supporting him because this tactic might work? Political journalist Chris Cillizza thinks Akin is a “devastatingly bad candidate” who will cost Republicans the Senate, but a series of polls indicate that he’s not only climbed back into this race, he may have a slight lead.

President Obama on Modern Day Slavery

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech on human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) conference that no doubt elevated the priority of this policy in a way that only a presidential speech can. He gave an impassioned plea to end the scourge of human trafficking, remarking that children younger than his daughters are sold into servitude.

President Obama used all the right words, noting that a better term for human trafficking is modern day slavery, and drawing historical parallels to slavery in the U.S.  The President also accurately noted that human trafficking is a problem across the globe, including in the U.S.

What President Obama failed to mention in his speech is that, despite having the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act since 2000, anti-trafficking efforts in the U.S. have been an abysmal failure. Investigations are open on fewer than 3% of estimated cases, and, according to two whistle blowers, the FBI has practices in place that discourage agents from investigating human trafficking cases. But it’s difficult to get a real handle on anti-human trafficking efforts in America since the FBI is unusually stingy with data on this crime. At least one member of congress has called upon the FBI to release its human trafficking data.

During his speech, President Obama announced a new Executive Order that requires greater accountability from government contractors. The law moves us one step closer to addressing labor slavery, but does nothing to address the most common form of trafficking — sexual exploitation  (79% of trafficking worldwide). In fact, throughout his speech, I was struck by the President’s overt emphasis on manual labor trafficking over sex trafficking in the many examples he furnished. (Both types of slavery are heinous, and this discussion is not meant to suggest otherwise.) Whether his intention was to avoid the graphic nature of sex slavery or focus on the type of slavery that is addressed by his Executive Order, President Obama left viewers with a misleading impression of the problem.

My last quibble with the President’s speech is that he twice understated the problem by claiming that 20 million people were in modern day slavery worldwide. His own State Department estimates put the number at 28 million, while critics show that U.S. and global statistics are likely underestimates.

It is a wonderful day when the President of the United States raises awareness about such a pressing social ill. It would be more wonderful if the actions of his Administration matched his elegant words.

Explaining Sexism 101 to Ali Velshi

CNN’s Ali Velshi

I don’t want to be writing this post. I was hoping this Labor Day would truly be free of labor, but I woke up to another dismissive Tweet from CNN Senior Business Correspondent Ali Velshi that compels comment. I’ve always enjoyed and respected Mr. Velshi’s analysis, but was unpleasantly surprised yesterday by his response to Mitt Romney’s claim to create 12 million new jobs if elected. Mr. Velshi stated, “Are you kidding? I’ll wear a dress for a week if after four years we have averaged a quarter million jobs per month.” Uh, wear a dress?

In other words, if Mr. Velshi loses his wager, his punishment is to wear women’s clothing. His comment derives its punitive meaning from the fact that we live in a society that routinely devalues women, and it’s considered absurd and demeaning for men to don anything feminine. Comments disparaging femininity are so ubiquitous and societally acceptable that Mr. Velshi’s sexism likely went unnoticed by most of his male and female viewers. Stealth sexism right in front of our faces.

Most boys learn to devalue the feminine at a young age since masculinity is learned through parents, teachers, media, advertising, and other entities encouraging intense rejection of everything associated with femininity (e.g., reviling the color pink, “boys don’t cry” (like girls), and the now classic gendered insult, “you throw like a girl.”) Both boys and girls learn to value masculinity. To highlight this double standard, it would be non-sensical for a female news personality to say she would wear pants as a punishment.

Granted, it’s problematic to reify or celebrate socially constructed femininity since it comes with damaging baggage, but it’s also not okay to publicly disparage it as this equates to disparaging the values girls and women are raised to embrace. This is what Mr. Velshi did. I tweeted him to say his words were “demeaning to women,” and he went out of his way to insult me. He labeled my critique “dumb” without articulating a counter argument. Here’s the exchange:

@alivelshi just promised to wear a dress for a week if Romney’s economic plan works. Demeaning to women. @CNN

@carolineheldman why is it demeaning?

@AliVelshi You plan to wear it for losing a bet, a punishment. Dresses are symbols of femininity. You’re saying being feminine = punishment.

23hAli VelshiAli Velshi@AliVelshi

@HeeWhoSay yeah I sort of ignore coments like @carolineheldman unless I’m VERY bored. That was a dumb comment

@AliVelshi My “dumb” critique was obvious. Gender 101. It’s called “devaluation of the feminine.” Thought u were a smart guy. Disappointing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Velshi’s comment joins a multitude of other television personalities saying blatantly sexist things. His statement was couched in a channel surfing marathon that included watching Snooki’s unbridled excitement in finding out that her (then) unborn baby would be a boy. Different channel, same sexist devaluation of girls/women. And unfortunately, Snooki and Mr. Velshi’s words matter because popular culture creates, reflects, and reinforces cultural norms.

I’m sure Mr. Velshi and others will think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but to mix metaphors, I’m zeroing in on a drop of water that serves as a reminder that there’s an ocean. If Ali Velshi acknowledges the blatant sexism of his sentiments, either privately or publicly, I promise to wear a dress for a week.