This was sort of a Women’s Week in American politics. The Paycheck Fairness Act got its day in the U.S. Senate but couldn’t get the 60-vote supermajority to overcome a Republican filibuster. And new signs of Hillary Clinton’s inevitability as the next Democratic nominee (who else can pull in money like she can?) have people wondering how gender politics, or plain sexism, will play out in 2016.
New York magazine’s Frank Rich has a lengthy piece on the quarter-century of the Republican Party’s search for the scandal that can bring down Bill and Hillary Clinton for good, and how often that search zeroes in on sex and gender roles. He recalls how conservative columnist Peggy Noonan compared Hillary Clinton to “the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction” and argued that Clinton “doesn’t have to prove she’s a man. She has to prove she’s a woman.” Rich predicts that such “attacks on Hillary’s sexuality will be the gifts that keep on giving to a Clinton campaign,” provoking a backlash in 2016.
The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner followed with a column headlined “The Obama-Era Race Wars Are Ending. Get Ready For the Clinton-Era Gender Wars.” He, too, suspects that Republicans will overreach: “the attacks on Clinton will be seen as sexist by liberals, which in turn will lead to conservatives feeling falsely accused of sexism. You can count on MSNBC, for example, to turn nearly every attack on Clinton into an attack on Republicans for hating women.”
But The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman isn’t so sure that condescending comments about women carry the same stigma that active racism does: “To put it simply, a lot of conservatives are still unashamedly sexist. When MSNBC calls out Rush Limbaugh for saying something sexist about Clinton, he doesn't try to convince people that it's a calumnious charge and he is in fact deeply committed to gender equality. He doesn't much care, and neither do a lot of other people.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee may or may not be sexist, but he showed that it’s acceptable to riff on gender differences (with a touch of gay panic) during a speech in Iowa on Tuesday night. Via TPM: “Guys like to go fishing with other men. They like to go hunting with other men. Women like to go to the restroom with other women. I don’t get that. I can tell you this much: if I ever say, ‘I have to go to the restroom’ and some guy says, ‘I’ll go with you,’ he ain’t goin’ with me. That much I know.”
Will this kind of folksiness be offered at the 2016 Republican national convention as party members get ready to take on Hillary Clinton? Will gender stereotyping be seen as out-of-date and counterproductive for Republicans, or will they try to benefit from yet another stereotype — the humorless feminist?
Ironically, conservatives accused of sexism may turn to the words of a former staffer for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “We need to stop telling each other to shut up,” wrote speechwriter Jon Lovett in a piece on The Atlantic’s website. After running down a list of Internet-fueled outrages (from Mozilla’s CEO donating to a campaign against gay marriage to a tweet about a Republican congresswoman that a Fox News panelist called “blatantly sexist”), Lovett concluded:
We need to learn to live with the noise and tolerate the noise even when the noise is stupid, even when the noise is offensive, even when the noise is at times dangerous. Because no matter how noble the intent, it’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less.
Does such a dystopian scenario bother activists on either side? Or do they simply wonder, “Yes, but who will benefit?”
Photo: Hillary Clinton speaks to delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters).