Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Is the political this personal? November 28, 2009

Filed under: critical thinking,politics — annejjacobson @ 4:36 pm

Do you grimace when Sarah Palin’s name comes up in discussions?  Do you think that might  have to do with her evident disregard for facts?  With her encouraging a right-wing flight into fantasy? 

Or could it be this personal, as Lisa Belkin in the NY Times maintains:

If life is like high school, then today’s educated, ambitious women, on both sides of the aisle, are the student-council presidents and the members of the debate team — taught that if they work hard and sacrifice something along the way, their smarts will be rewarded.This makes Sarah Palin the head cheerleader. (Though, in reality, she was the captain of the basketball team.) Pretty and popular, with no apparent interest in studying, she’s the one who industrious girls were tacitly promised would not succeed in the real world. Whether we voted for Hillary or not, we weren’t about to let Palin breeze in, with her sexy librarian hair and her peekaboo-toed shoes, conforming to every winking, air-brained stereotype, and sashay to the front of the line.

This observation, I’m inclined to say, is utter bull.  It is wrong about our take on success in the world, and it is wrong on why we dislike her.  But can I speak for “we”?  What do you think about the explanation?

Let’s have a poll!  In fact let’s have two.  The explanation the NY Times article looks like it comes from a particular view about psychological explanations.  That view says that the most basic explanations of your beliefs, desires and actions will turn out to be very narrowly self-regarding and even pretty petty, if not fundamentally very erotic.  E.g., you may think that you oppose Palin because she further taints politics with vicious lies, but really you feel she just shows you aren’t pretty and sexy enough.

So let’s start with this poll:

And then go to this one:

 

27 Responses to “Is the political this personal?”

  1. bondwooley Says:

    The only way to keep ignorant, loud-mouth morons who spew anger from taking over is to get angry right back at them:

    http://bit.ly/5K4TIZ

  2. Xena Says:

    I wonder if this blog will get flushed away like so many others if I’m so bold as to state that my thinking on “whatserface” is comparable to the liberal men to whom Belkin refers in her article.
    I’m too busy with my own half-informed narcissism to notice her. Is she still governor?

  3. king Says:

    Just two questions: Why does one have to dislike Palin to fight against her politics? Why do Americans have to hate somebody not to vote for them and vice versa ?

  4. Don Says:

    I would vote for her. She has the 3 qualities I that I think is needed to be the next President:
    1. She is smart
    2. She has the experience (as a former Governor)
    3. She is a woman

    The people will be looking for change. With that said, I think that being a woman will be a major advantage in the next election.

  5. Richa Says:

    I also agree that Belkin’s assessment is mean-minded. But at the same time, it seems obvious to me that you could not assess its validity with polls as straightforward as these. Surely the authors of a blog which is practically obsessed with the role of implicit bias should appreciate this.

  6. Carl Says:

    1. She is smart

    Smart people do well in college and have the ability to form coherent sentences in speech.

    2. She has the experience (as a former Governor)

    Former Governor! Why former? Didn’t she have another couple years left in office? If it’s hard being President would she quit that too!?

    3. She is a woman

    It takes more than ovaries to be a woman. (It also takes more than testicles to be a man.)

    If the Republicans are desperate for a female Governor from a distant state, there’s always Linda Lingle down here in Hawaii. Lingle’s been through some major state crises with an earthquake, power outages, budget problems, etc. Way more experience and proven leadership than Palin. I suspect however that they only care about Palin because she’s a pretty face, and Lingle can’t compete in that department.

  7. Elena Says:

    The cheerleader analogy is distasteful, but I think Belkin’s larger point is valid. Just like it’s annoying when an empty suit gets elected/promoted for looking “right” for the job (white, male, middle-aged, graying hair, perhaps?) or when a party boy gets elected/promoted for “being fun to have a beer with” despite not having knowledge and skills necessary for the job, it is disheartening to people who actually worked hard to study the issues when somebody like Palin gets ahead because of… what exactly? Looking like a stereotype? being fun to have beer with?
    It feels unfair even if one is quite successful on merits. Although it’s possible that I only think that because I am petty at heart; this would be difficult for me to judge objectively.

  8. Vishal Lama Says:

    Rather than focus on Palin’s popularity – whether she deserves it or not is really moot, in my opinion – we can use the “Palin phenomenon” to actually probe the public’s psyche to reveal honest truths about them. There is plenty that one could learn from Palin’s die-hard supporters. What about Palin that energizes them so much? Seeking an answer to that question should go a long way in improving our understanding of the behavioral sciences! I should add that in the last election, we had plenty of Obama’s supporters – not all, of course – projecting a lot of their own thoughts/desires on to him, and it seems like a very similar phenomenon is developing now in the other camp.

  9. Sarah Says:

    What I found most intriguing about this article is the way that Palin proves paradoxical for many feminist women. Within the analogy, hard working, smart, powerful women should be supported because they’ve worked against such odds to succeed, and that’s where we feel the rub when a “cheerleader” pops onto the scene. It’s not that politics are really like high school, or that we’re all actually petty and shallow, it’s that we want to support women in power but, at the end of the day, we want them to be a certain kind of women, one who many feminists see as the epitome of how we want to be represented. I don’t think this is a drawback though. The fact that the Republican party thought they could trot out a women, any woman, and the ladies would carry her on their shoulders just because she was a woman shows how far we have come, how smart and discerning we are. To me, Palin reveals that we no longer feel obligated to vote for somebody just because she has ovaries.

  10. H. E. Baber Says:

    Dang thing is that I don’t particularly dislike Palin, though I don’t particularly like her. She doesn’t arouse the visceral reaction that W did for me–or Reagan.

    But now listen, didn’t Bella Abzug say:

    Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.

  11. C Says:

    IMHO, the problem with Sarah Palin for many women is what Carl and Sarah above mentioned–this idea that she isn’t the right kind of woman. I have never been one to vote for a woman simply because (or largely because) she is a woman, nor am I invested in either political party (I think both major political parties are corrupt), but I do think that hand in hand with feminism is the idea that women ought to be as free to choose their paths as men are. Unfortunately, that inevitably means that some women will choose paths that other women think are misguided, and not only misguided, but set the case of women back. I think this goes a long way in explaining why so many feminists ignored the blatant sexism that Palin experienced as a candidate or the (few as they were), in contrast to more general outcry against the sexism that Clinton faced. That’s just one example, but I do think it demonstrates some personal feelings getting involved.

    Re: speaking of we is an interesting question. If I take the meaning of “we” to be those of us who loathe Palin, then I’m not a member. I feel like she was a terrible candidate and certainly not ready at the time, but I really don’t care much about her one way or the other. But if we are examining “we” as “we feminists,” then *soapbox time* this is something I feel passionately about. I think there should be moves across the cultural and political aisles to attempt to engage women (and men) of all persuasions on the importance of feminism. There are a lot of women in my generation (I’m in my mid-twenties) who agree with feminist principles but shy away from the term feminist. When I’ve engaged women in this discussion (almost invariably these are college-educated women from middle-class backgrounds), I nearly always get the same answer: “well, yes, I support the idea that women ought to paid the same as men; yes, I think we ought to figure out why some fields are male-dominated and what we can do to change that; yes, I think that we should object to the sexualization of women–but women like me don’t fit in.” When queried about what “women like me” means, answers vary–some cite political affiliations, some religious affiliations, some say they are not ambitious enough in their careers, some think of feminists as bra-burners only. I think it’s really unfortunate, because I don’t think we’ll see major change in society until the majority of women identify themselves as feminists, which I don’t see happening in my generation anytime soon. I don’t really have a concrete solution, but I do think it has to start with feminism being more inclusive (I don’t think that means we have to say that Palin is feminist, for example, but I do think it means that we can agree to disagree on some issues and still work together on issues that we can all agree on). *end soapbox*

    Sorry, I know parts of that were somewhat off-topic, but I feel like this is a topic that is critically important, and is relevant to to the evaluation of our attitudes toward other women.

  12. Vishal Lama Says:

    There are a lot of women in my generation (I’m in my mid-twenties) who agree with feminist principles but shy away from the term feminist.

    In response to C’s comment above, I would like to mention that Jessica Valenti (of http://www.feministing.com fame) seems to have done a wonderful job in bringing out and discussing some of the pertinent issues, such as the one pointed out in the quote above, in several of her books. Right now, I am half way through her book ‘The Purity Myth‘, which I think is a great read. I haven’t read her ‘Full Frontal Feminism‘ yet but in a related book talk (the video is available here), she precisely addresses some of the issues that arise with the common sentiment shared by many women that they don’t wish or like to be labeled “feminists” despite the fact that they agree with almost all feminist principles or ideas.

    I just felt like sharing the above piece of information. My apologies if all this was already known to those reading this comment.

  13. Vishal Lama Says:

    Sorry about the double post. In response to “…she’s the one who industrious girls were tacitly promised would not succeed in the real world“, I would like to state that it is the nature of the capitalist system that in the “real world” people like Palin are bound to be a lot more “successful” than the average college professor, say.

  14. jj Says:

    So many issues have been raised. Let me pick up a few

    Richa: The polls aren’t trying to assess the validity of Belkin’s analysis; they’re really just asking readers what they think.

    HEB: thanks for the reminder of Abzug; does it follow that women more generally will benefit from Palin’s political presence? I don’t think that is necessarily false.

    I tend to put Palin and Limbaugh together; their disregard for the truth is made dangerous by their influence.

  15. H. E. Baber Says:

    My guess is that Palin’s political presence won’t either help or hurt women. Katha Pollitt’s take in the Guardian is interesting. I especially like her concluding remarks about Angela Merkel, “a middle-aged woman with a PhD in physics, a pleasant lined face and a low-key, straightforward manner.” Now Merkel I think DOES benefit women.

    Comments on feminism are interesting–with students especially I am continually hit with “I’m not a feminist but…” as I think we all are. Here is my take on that.

  16. Jender Says:

    The Abzug quote is interesting. But I’d take it to mean that thick women being promoted as quickly as thick men is a *sign* that some kind of progress has been made, rather than in itself a cause of such progress. Or is that wrong?

  17. H. E. Baber Says:

    Sign but also cause insofar as it sends the message that women’s equality isn’t just for the best and the brightest.

    Consider our current 3-gender system: Men, Women and Us–the quasi-unisex elite. In, say, the top quintile of the population–academics and other professionals, individuals with graduate degrees or good BAs from good universities–men and women do the same jobs and everyone pays lip-service to gender equality, etc. The further down you go the more salient sex roles are and, roughly, the greater horizontal sex segregation in employment: there are Men and Women. Men do men’s jobs and women do women’s jobs.

  18. Xena Says:

    H.E. : I like that view. Because attaching an “ism” to principles that should just be “common sense” gives the masses the impression that the principles are some kind of way-far-left-hairy-armpit-thing, the masses don’t want to align themselves with the title. That’s interesting.

    As somebody who’s identified informally with feminism since about the age of 10, I’ve always (since I was about 16, anyway) QUICKLY walked away from people who say “I”m not a feminist”. To me “I’m not a feminist” means “I AM a right wing fundamentalist and your ‘type’ is going to hear it from me for stealing jobs from men who need to support their wives.”

    To me, the whole idea of using a woman to represent even *”moderate” Conservative values is as absurd as using John Cleese as the official spokesperson for breast implants. (Of course, if the Monty Python crew did create a scit like this, they would pull it off far more artfully than the Republican party did with their gimmicks.) Underlying my urge to laugh at “whatserface” there’s something kinda creepy and exploitative about the whole deal. I’ll take Naomi Klein’s position on the “progressive” right (especially the McCain girl’s cleavage shot) as well as the over-priced “green” gadget-peddling left.
    At least I’m not stuck in the awkward position of having to demand that Mr. Obama put his–ahem– yoga mat, cofee mug, commemorative coin etc., etc., money “where his mouth is”. I’m more forgiving of–ahem– President Skywalker’s hype because I’m not paying for it, and there seems to be some substance underneath the marketing machine.

    I pay attention to President !O! because what he does effects the world and the course of world history, and hearing him speak is GLORIOUS, regardless of who writes the stuff. 50 years from now, nobody outside of Alaska will even remember “whatserface”, especially not the Russians (unless they have their own John Cleese type to honour her in parody).

    * “moderate” is in quotations because I’m Canadian–our entire political system leans a little further left on the spectrum than the Americans’.

    Now the prospect of creating a “new” (term for?) feminism that’s more in line with the thinking of the masses, THAT interests me. If it’s not too far off topic, I’d like to see more of H.E.’s thoughts on how ( I mean some practical hows) to appeal to women who misunderstand the term.

  19. Xena Says:

    H.E.: Blog # 17 is about to send me on another “nouveau pauvre/trailer park intelligentsia” rant. I’ll keep still on that one for now, because I liked what you had to had to say about “literateists”. Elaborate further, please.

  20. H. E. Baber Says:

    Most of the core principled commitments associated with feminism are fairly uncontroversial, e.g. the claim that men and women should have equal opportunity in employment. There are very few people who would claim that women shouldn’t have the same opportunities as men solely in virtue of being women–as J. R. Lucas did, and for which he was thoroughly Haacked.

    The difference between feminists and anti-feminists seems largely a disagreement about empirical facts, e.g. when it comes to the question of why so few women are working at job X, anti-feminists will make the following, usually false, empirical claims:

    • There is no discrimination in hiring for job X: formal equality under the law has fixed everything for women.

    • There is no implicit bias in assessing applicants’ qualifications for job X

    • The fact that there are a few women doing job X shows that there is neither overt discrimination nor implicit bias in hiring for job X (the “Madame Curie Effect”)

    • Most women aren’t as qualified as men to to job X because they don’t have the muscle, don’t have the aggression, don’t have the mathematical aptitude, etc.

    • Most women don’t choose to do job X because women don’t like getting dirty, don’t want to do work that’s physically strenuous, don’t like aggressive confrontation, prefer “caring” work and “people work” to work like job X

    Empirical claims are wonderfully manageable and there’s a vast body of hard data to show that empirical claims like the above are just plain false. I would reject feminism as an ideology, worldview or package of normative principles in favor of feminism as a challenge to questionable empirical claims like the above. If you look at the popular anti-feminist literature, including blog posts and comments, two things are striking: (1) the dispute is almost always about empirical claims (the existence of bias, women’s abilities and preferences) and (2) much of it is not misogynistic but anti-feminist–directed against what’s perceived as an ideology that promotes a battle of the sexes, special treatment for “victims”, yada-yada-yada.

    Recognize that virtually everyone agrees on principles–in particular that it’s a bad thing if people’s options are restricted in virtue of factors over which they have no control: class, race, ethnicity, and sex. And then address the empirical questions.

  21. Tomatoes Says:

    Here’s my issue with the post on Palin: In my high school the student-council presidents were also the cheerleaders. My cynicism set-in early. The successful (i.e., publicly visible in leadership roles) women were not likely to be the truly studious or industrious, but the pretty, sexy, rich. . .and, um, bouncy or bubbly or perky (certainly not the serious or intellectual or arty or witty). So, no, I didn’t feel that there was any “promise” that the smart and industrious would succeed and lead.

  22. Xena Says:

    Thank you, H.E. I think I’m finally getting somewhere with all of this. That approach might work just as well for somebody who says “I don’t really like philosophy, and academics are kind of elitist and I’m not giving up my vernacular for them (the class symbol equivalent of Artemis’ archers’ right breasts) but Rawls wasn’t too bad”.

    I think Hannah Arendt (drawing on Sigmund Freud?) called that Narcissism of Minor Difference.

    I think I’ll go practice on my logic-chopping so I can point out the difference between vague similarities, minor differences and glaring discrepancies without the proverbial “three fingers pointing back at myself”.

  23. Jender Says:

    I think you’re right about a lot of opposition to feminism– it is about empirical claims rather than principles. But I’d never thought it through that way before, and it’s really helpful to have you put it that way– thank you!

  24. TheLady Says:

    I don’t agree that feminists object to Palin because she’s the wrong type of woman so much as because she’s the wrong type of person.

    She embodies what H. E. above calls the “Marie Curie Principle” – a member of an oppressed group who, through a combination of luck and stern adherence to the paradigm of the oppressor, managed to carve out a successful life fr herself. The way she uses her platform is to consistently try and lock other women more securely into their cages, especially as regards young women and abortion.

    If you’re not as lucky as Sarah has been – not as beautiful, not as abstinent (was she abstinent, or was she on the pill in college? – nobody knows), not as charismatic, not as unscrupulous, etc., and your life under the patriarchal mdoel doesn’t turn out as well as hers has done, wll then – sucks to be you. The solution is most certainly not to do somethign about the system that oppresses you; it is to accept that if you can’t rise against your oppression under your own steam by outcompeting and stepping on your peers, well then, that’s just your own fault, missy.

    Imagine if Obama was saying to black sons of single mothers that see, he managed to go to Harvard and become President against all the odds, and they could do just as well if only they stopped a) having sex and b) complaining all the time. Hah.

    So while it’s true that different people will take different emotional routes to disliking Sarah Palin – the resentful, the envious, the narcissistic, the ideological – at the end of the day she is disliked because she’s an asshole.

  25. wolfshowl Says:

    I hate Palin because she pushes policies that are bad for women. It’s like if an African-American politician was pushing for a return to Jim Crow.

  26. jj Says:

    HEB, let me second Jender’s “thank you.”

    And also I thank the last two commentators who have made the comparison with African Americans and Obama. I often find it enlightening to look at an issue about sexism as if it were about racism (and vice versa), and I wish I had thought to do so now. Would any of us think African Americans opposed to a comparable right wing black candidate were just being petty and envious? I don’t think so!

    Lady, I do like your observation about following the standards of the oppressor, and it goes well with 13 (Vishal Lama) above. It is not the least accidental that the cheerleaders do win too.

  27. [...] Philosophers (where I saw the original piece, by the way) calls Belkin wrong for oversimplifying the criticisms. Posting for the Lilith magazine blog, Mel Weiss [...]


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