Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Parallels between Caroline Kennedy and Sarah Palin?

One thing that has stuck in my head from Caroline Kennedy's early statements about her informal candidacy for the soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat for NY regards her credentials to hold that post. Kennedy gave this response a couple of weeks ago regarding her qualifications:
“I’ve written books on the Constitution and the importance of individual participation. And I’ve raised my family. I think I really could help bring change to Washington.”
Read the full story here.

One reason this comment has lingered for me is that it is so similar -- the parenting/mothering part, anyway -- to Sarah Palin's presentation of her credentials to become U.S. Vice President. While stumping on the campaign trail, she frequently played up her experiences raising five children. Here's the video of her self-identification as a hockey mom at the Republican National Convention. While Republicans tended to valorize Palin's motherhood, Democrats tended to downplay its relevance, if not outright scoff at it. (Of course, Palin's critics also had some things to say about the quality of her parenting).

In sorting through my own thoughts about the relevance of motherhood to the role of politician (or, for that matter, any work outside the home) I recalled this op-ed piece in the New York Times on Mother's Day, 2005 (memorable for me as my first Mother's Day as a mother). Katherine Ellison's piece was titled "This is Your Brain on Motherhood," and it asserted that having children can improve your intelligence. She explained how the human brain creates cells on an ongoing basis and that the cells that get used are more likely to survive. Because parenting often provides emotional, challenging, and novel experiences, those neurons get exercised. Ellison writes:
Children constantly drag their parents into challenging, novel situations, be it talking a 4-year-old out of a backseat meltdown on the Interstate or figuring out a third-grade homework assignment to make a model of a black hole in space.
* * *
[Children] fail to thrive unless we anticipate their needs, work our empathy muscles, adjust our schedules and endure their relentless testing. In the process, if we're lucky, we may realize that just this kind of grueling work - with our children, or even with others who could simply use some help - is precisely what makes us grow, acquire wisdom and become more fully human.
So, Ellison argues, we should see a mother's brain (and presumably a father's, too, if he's engaged with the full range of parenting tasks and experiences) as an asset rather than a handicap.

Does Ellison help convince you that raising children is relevant experience for one seeking public office? As a related matter, it is surely also worth considering how we view people who have never married or never had children. (Read Gail Collins recent column, "One Singular Sensation," here). Don't we sometimes see the absence of a spouse and children as a negative factor? Are women and men equally damned if they do, damned if they don't when it comes to being married? to having children?

Whatever relevance you assign to it, mothering roles are not the only experience shared by Palin and Kennedy. Another similarity is now being revealed, and it is the subject of an AP story by Jennifer Peltz today. Here's the lede:
If Caroline Kennedy had, you know, only known. Tracking the would-be New York senator's verbal tics has become a political parlor game in the days since she gave her first round of in-depth interviews, even spawning a hip-hop-style mash-up online blending her "you knows" with President-elect Barack Obama's "uhs."
Peltz goes on to report that one video on YouTube counts 30 "you knows" in 147 seconds of Kennedy excerpts. The other YouTube video referred to is here.

Remember how Palin was roundly and soundly criticized for her accent and use of language. Among those who got in on the act were Judith Warner, Roger Cohen, Maureen Dowd, and many others.

I have queried elsewhere whether all of this criticism of how Palin communicates is sexist. After all, various Presidents have spoken using colloquialisms (a wonderful example is here), and some have had (oh no!) Southern accents. Now I'm rethinking whether the criticism of Palin was more about gender or more about class. After all, no one doubts Kennedy's elite pedigree and education (Harvard and Columbia), yet she makes some of the same verbal blunders that Palin did--and she's being criticized for it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The election is over, but talk of sexism persists in relation to the open U.S. Senate seat for NY

Caroline Kennedy formally requested this week that NY Governor David Paterson consider her for the U.S. Senate seat for that state, the seat that will open when Hillary Rodham Clinton resigns to become Secretary of State. (Photo Jean-Pierre Muller/Getty Images).

Here is the NYT story. Kennedy had only just put herself forward for consideration when commentators started throwing around words like "sexism" and "nepotism." Here's what Nicholas Kristof had to say yesterday in his blog:
Caroline Kennedy strikes me as a very impressive woman with all the right priorities, such as education. But I also find it unseemly and undemocratic that she seems to have vaulted to the top of the Senate list by virtue of who her dad was. * * * Isn’t that sexist?
I'm not sure how it is sexist . . . unless he is drawing some analogy to McCain's selection of Palin --which many argued was just because Palin was female. Also, there is the argument that since Hillary Rodham Clinton has held the seat, it has become a "woman's seat" and should be filled by another woman.

Kristof continues in a way that implicitly acknowledges the latter argument by saying that choosing Kennedy would be "disrespectful" of other female NY politicians with more experience and public service. He then again asserts sexism:
Isn’t it sexist to rush to support a woman because of her father, while ignoring other women who have earned their own substantial credentials in their own careers in Congress?
I appreciate his acknowledging the fine work of congresswomen and other female politicians from NY, but I don't know that it's sexist to support a woman with a famous father when, as Kristof himself acknowledges, various political dynasties in our nation's history have anointed sons. The Bushes are a fine example.

Don't miss readers comments on Kristof's post. More than one notes that if an "ism" is at play, it's nepotism, not sexism.

In her column today, Gail Collins also takes up the "fairness question." She begins by observing that New York is taking Caroline seriously and suggests it is with good reason. Collins notes Kennedy's extraordinary success as a fundraiser, while also distinguishing between the good causes for which Kennedy has raised money in the past and the distinct challenge of political fundraising. She also views Kennedy as having other important political skills, saying, "it's easy to imagine Kennedy doing a Hillary-like 'listening tour,' having round-table discussions about the dairy compact or broadband access."

Collins acknowledges that picking Kennedy may not be "fair," but then life rarely is. Collins seems a bit more positive than Kristof about the prospect and potential of Caroline Kennedy as U.S. Senator. And, hmmm, Collins doesn't mention sexism, perhaps because she does not see it as a force or issue in Paterson's decision.

Monday, December 15, 2008

An academic study of "Gender's Role in the 2008 Presidential Campaign"

Here is the abstract, which I just saw on

Scholars, and even the presidential candidates, have described the 2008 election as an extended interview process for a high-ranking job. Following that characterization of the Presidential race, questions about sexism and gender bias along the campaign trail implicate the law. Title VII protects individuals from sex bias in the workplace. And while modern conceptions of how such bias actually operates, largely drawn from social and cognitive psychology, aids legal decision-makers in determining whether such bias indeed took place in any particular case, greater insight into the intersection of psychology and the law is needed. Here, we explore the role of sexism and implicit (subconscious) gender bias in the Presidential race through the lens of Title VII. Further, we buttresses the proposition put forth by a growing body of legal scholars that the role of implicit attitudes in decision-making has significant implications for Title VII jurisprudence.

Download the full paper by Quinetta Robertson and Gregory Scott Parks here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The latest installment of Doonesbury with the Sarah Palin Action Doll

This is the one from Nov. 26, 2008.

View others here. Does making it an "action" doll keep it from being sexist? And where is the "action" anyway? I just learned about this series and am catching up on it, but I'm not sure what the Palin doll does . . . .

Monday, November 24, 2008

Advice pours in for Michelle Obama

According to Rachel Swarns' story in the New York Times, the advice is coming from around the world, including some from Cherie Blair, who proffered hers in her regular column for The Times (London). Like French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, Blair continued to work while her husband was the leader of the United Kingdom. (Of course, they have very different careers: Blair is a senior barrister; Bruni is a singer). Blair wrote in her column:

You have to learn to take the back seat, not just in public, but in private . . . . When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do. * * * It is something of an irony that in these days of pushing for equality those of us married to our political leaders have to put their own ambitions on hold while their spouses are in office and keep their views to themselves. I, at least, had my career. That is not an option for Michelle Obama.

I have recently recalled here Hillary's 1992 adjustment to becoming first lady. Swarns' story informs us that Hillary is the only first lady prior to Michelle Obama to have an active career until shortly before her husband became President. The only other first lady to have an advanced degree was Laura Bush, and I believe that degree was in the rather lower profile subject of library science.

Also of great interest for purposes of our seminar on gender's role in the 2008 election is the observation that Michelle Obama became more popular (or at least more "celebrated" by the media) once she quit her job and fully embraced the role of "mom-in-chief."

Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of “Mommy Wars,” an anthology of essays (Random House, 2006), argued on the NPR program “Tell Me More” that Mrs. Obama had been “put in a box” and was only celebrated in the news media after she decided “to put her family first.”

In the online magazine Salon, Rebecca Traister bemoaned what she described as the “momification of Michelle Obama,” criticizing the news media’s focus on Mrs. Obama’s search for schools for her two young daughters, her fashion sense and her pledge that her No. 1 job is “to be Mom.”

Traister laments the lack of "curiosity about how Michelle will adjust to the loss of her own private, very successful, very high-profile and very independent identity." Leaving work that one enjoys is a huge adjustment, and Ms. Obama's last job was a $300K/year Vice Presidency at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Nevertheless, as one commentator points out, unlike most women who leave work to be a trailing spouse, Ms. Obama's career won't suffer long-term consequences. She will be highly sought after for law firm partnerships and other roles as soon as his Presidency ends.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Steinem on HRC and Palin

Gloria Steinem wrote a couple of high profile op-ed pieces over the course of the election. Here are excerpts from two -- one about HRC and one about Sarah Palin.

This appeared on January 8, 2008, after Hillary lost Iowa and before she won New Hampshire. It was titled, "Women are Never Front-runners," and it cleverly juxtaposed female gender with some of Obama's biographical details to make the point that Obama's credentials might be subject to greater scrutiny and skepticism were he a woman. Here are the first few paragraphs:

THE woman in question became a lawyer after some years as a community organizer, married a corporate lawyer and is the mother of two little girls, ages 9 and 6. Herself the daughter of a white American mother and a black African father — in this race-conscious country, she is considered black — she served as a state legislator for eight years, and became an inspirational voice for national unity.

Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate?

Steinem says that if you answered "no," you are hardly alone. She goes on to call gender "probably the most restricting force in American life." She notes a study which found that the United States "polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy."

The second Steinem piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times after Sarah Palin was chosen as McCain's running mate. It is titled "Wrong woman, wrong message." After labeling John McCain the "real culprit," Steinem argues that he chose Palin to curry favor with "right-wing ideologues." She continues:
Palin's value to those patriarchs is clear: She opposes just about every issue that women support by a majority or plurality. She believes that creationism should be taught in public schools but disbelieves global warming; she opposes gun control but supports government control of women's wombs; she opposes stem cell research but approves "abstinence-only" programs, which increase unwanted births, sexually transmitted diseases and abortions . . .
Gloria Steinem, long-time editor of Ms. magazine, is a so-called second-generation feminist who is famous for saying, "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." Do you see any inconsistencies in the positions she takes in these two editorials?

Barack Obama as parent: Obsession with the Obama girls and a family's personal transition

We've just learned that the Obama girls, Malia (10) and Sasha (7), will attend Sidwell Friends School when they move to Washington, DC, and take up residence in the White House in the coming weeks. Read the story here. This news came after what I found to be a nauseating amount of news attention to the fact that all of the prestigious DC schools were courting the Obama girls. See Rachel Swarns story from the NYT Style pages here. Indeed, interest in Michelle, the girls, and -- of course--the rock star himself, seems to be reaching a fever pitch, which is understandable, I suppose.

I feel sorry for their loss of privacy as they make this transition and we know that their lives will never again be the same. A recent NYT story by Peter Baker takes up this topic:
Life for the newly chosen president and his family has changed forever. Even the constraints and security of the campaign trail do not compare to the bubble that has enveloped him in the 10 days since his election. Renegade, as the Secret Service calls him, now lives within the strict limits that come with the most powerful office on the planet.
A photo accompanying the story shows the Obama girls getting out of an SUV, backpacks in hand, under the watchful eye of the Secret Service. President-Elect Obama is not pictured, but the caption suggests he is in the SUV and involved in dropping the girls off for school.

You can read another report on the Obama family's transition, by Jodi Kantor, here.

Sasha and Malia are the youngest children since John and Caroline Kennedy to have been raised in the White House. Chelsea Clinton, who also attended Sidwell Friends, was a young teen when Bill Clinton became President in 1992. So, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Obama is depicted as father in the coming weeks and months. I recall one voter during the primary season suggesting that, with young children at home, this was not the time for Obama to be seeking the Presidency. Indeed, with the economy falling apart at home (and abroad!) and two wars ongoing, the man is going to be seriously challenged to find time to stay involved with his children.

What women are saying about Hillary's new role

Don't miss Jodi Kantor's story in the New York Times here. I particularly like the parts that focus on being one's own boss versus working for, well, the most powerful man in the world. Of course the parts that speak to her power and influence, whichever role she chooses, are also very heartening. Here are some excerpts:
As [HRC] pondered this week whether to trade her hard-won independence and elected office for a job working for a more powerful man, mothers and schoolteachers and law partners mulled in tandem with her.

* * *

As news spread on Friday evening that Mrs. Clinton had decided to accept the job, so did a basic consensus: the assignment was probably a triumph for Mrs. Clinton, if a costly one.
This part about (some) women relating to HRC and her experiences as a professional woman really resonates with me. That is, I am definitely one of the women who relates, both to showing emotion in the workplace and to accumulated sexist slights!

Throughout Mrs. Clinton’s presidential run, women across the country saw in her a mirror of their own career fortunes: when she teared up just before the New Hampshire primary that she was expected to lose, they remembered their own workplace humiliations, and when she lost the Democratic nomination, many saw it as an accumulation of all-too-familiar sexist slights.

The story is well worth a read for the sense it conveys of Hillary's past, present and future. Kantor summarizes what she calls Clinton's "feminist triumph" by tracking where she's been. In short, the decade reflects the adage, "you've come a long way, baby." A decade ago, Hillary was a first lady whose hairstyles were fodder for comedians. Now, however, she is poised to become the "world's top diplomat." Plus, working for a President is a whole different ballgame than being married to one.

Kantor's report features lots of thought-provoking quotes. Gloria Steinem, who lauds Hillary's decision to take the Secretary of State job, is quoted as saying, “The question of whether one has one’s own political power or goes to work for someone else is not only a feminist question” I guess it may be "not only" a feminist question, but I think it certainly is a "feminist question." I guess I am unsure that anything about Hillary can, after all these years, not be a "feminist question."

I am heartened by Kantor's conclusion that Clinton "is such an esteemed figure, no one will see her as a mere emissary." Certainly, I am delighted for Hillary, though I would also have been pleased had she chosen to stay in the Senate and continue to work on health care reform.

As a related matter, I wrote this post last week on my feminist legal theory blog. It discusses Hillary's then-prospects to become Secretary of State, as well as changing perceptions of her over the years since Bill Clinton ran for President.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Have women really made gains in politics?

Well, Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York appear poised to accept cabinet positions in the Obama administration. See the news reports here and here. These appointments are certainly good news for women, but this will not be the first cabinet to include at least two women.

So, a headline from UC Davis news service today took me by surprise. It reads: "Women's Gains in Politics Not Seen in Board Rooms, CEO Offices," and you can read the full story here. The part that surprised me was that women are perceived as having made gains in politics, presumably recently. Really? Did the 2008 race for the President really change anything? We've had a woman as VP nominee before. We've had women run for President before, though none have come as close to the nomination as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The lack of women in executive suites, on the other hand, is hardly news at all. Nevertheless, here are some highlights from the article, which features data from the recent UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders.
Half of California's 400 largest public companies have no women in top executive offices, according to a study reported today by University of California, Davis, researchers. Almost half do not have a woman on the board of directors. Nearly a third -- including household names McAfee, Quicksilver and Hansen Natural -- do not have a woman in either a top executive post or on the governing board.

The fourth annual UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders found that only 13 of California's 400 largest public companies have a woman CEO. Overall, women hold just 10.9 percent of board seats and executive positions -- insignificant progress from 2007, when the figure was 10.4 percent, and from 2006 and 2005, when it was 10.2 percent.

"Time and time again, studies prove that businesses with women in leadership positions thrive. In our current economic situation, California's companies can't afford to ignore the talents of women," said Rosario Marin, secretary of the California State and Consumer Services Agency and a former U.S. treasurer. "It's time to stop focusing on our women leaders' pantsuits or hairstyles and start placing value on how these women are making their companies more efficient and effective -- and get that leadership in place at companies across our state."