Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gender and political identity in the race for the Democratic nomination (and other things women seek)

In the run up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, the media seem to have a taken a coupla' days break from writing Hillary Clinton's political obituary. What a relief. In today's New York Times, Robin Toner offers us some incisive analysis on the question that remains much on my mind: is the turn in this race about gender or is it about Hillary herself?

Toner reminds us of what the polls show: Male voters prefer Obama by a significant margin, while female voters tend to be split equally between Clinton and Obama. Toner queries whether this is due to Obama's extraordinary attractiveness to male voters--or something else. Toner then reports the observations of several commentators. One of them is Prof. Kathleen Dolan of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who argues that gender is at work in the "visceral" reaction many men have to Hillary. Dolan says, “You could say men are just really captivated by Obama. But I’m not willing to say that’s what it is.” Toner writes, quoting Dolan:

From Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign on, she noted, Mrs. Clinton was confronted with a series of controversies around gender roles and stereotypes - from hairstyles to “co-presidencies” to “standing by her man” against charges of infidelity.

“The notion that she is a Rorschach test for where we are on gender issues was true on day one, when we met her, and it’s absolutely true today,” said Ms. Dolan. “So when people say, it’s just her, I don’t buy it.”

In short, she sees difficulty in separating the "candidate" from the "woman" (the topic of other posts here and here). One thing is for sure -- as Toner suggests -- long after this race is over, we'll be ruminating over whether it was "gender" or whether it was "Hillary."

The same is true, of course, in other arenas where a woman's leadership is at stake. How will my male colleagues respond if the Chancellor names one of the two women candidates to be dean of the law school? Will they be able to fall in behind a female leader? How do students respond to female professors who fail to live up their maternal (or, for younger women, sexualized) expectations? Is gender the problem, or is it just that individual woman's (1) lack of experience; (2) lack of intelligence; (3) personality (read that "bitchiness") . . . you fill in the blank.

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