Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is Biden a "ladies' man" we can rally 'round?

The New Republic online, dated Sept. 24, features this column about Joe Biden, holding him out as having some seriously good feminist bona fides. The author of the piece is Fred Strebeigh, whose book Equal: Women Reshape American Law is forthcoming in Feb. 2009. Strebeigh's argument is based in large part on Biden's role in relation to Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a piece of early 1990s federal legislation with various provisions aimed at better protecting women from violence. A critical part of the law was subsequently struck as unconstituional by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison in 2000. But that's beside the point of the story Strebeigh tells about Biden in The New Republic. Here's an excerpt:
The mostly untold story of Biden's fight to support the "Civil Rights For Women" section of VAWA provides a window into his work for women, its origins, and how the defense of women's rights fits into his political worldview. Women voters may yet find something to cheer: In fighting for the legislation, Biden showed he was willing to trust the guidance of women activists and women judges, and then to contend against fierce and mostly male resistance in Washington, particularly from the Supreme Court.

* * *

The late '80s, Biden noticed, showed a rise in violent crimes against young women. Then, in December 1989, a man walked into a university classroom in Montreal with a hunting rifle, divided the students by sex, yelled that the women were all "a bunch of feminists," and killed 14 of them. Biden's aide Ron Klain handed the Senator an article in the Los Angeles Times by a friend who had clerked with Klain the year before at the Supreme Court, Lisa Heinzerling (now professor of law at Georgetown). Heinzerling connected that murder of "feminists" to a gap in U.S. law. Federal law tracking hate crimes targeted only, she wrote, a "victim's race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation." Thus, she argued, "if a woman is beaten, raped or killed because she is a woman, this is not considered a crime of hate"--a legal loophole "welcome to no one but the misogynist."

And it closes with this vignette that relates to the Morrison case.

Standing beneath an umbrella that carried the seal of the Senate, Biden made an argument for women's equality that VAWA's defenders could not make inside the Court because the Court did not wish to hear arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment. "Men don't choose not to take jobs" for fear of gender- motivated violence, Biden said, but "women do alter their life patterns." Then he returned to his own stake in the law--adopting a "personal is political" stance close to the heart of Biden's political values as well as much feminism. The effort to protect women against gender-based violence, he argued, "empowers my daughter and granddaughters."

The civil rights section's effort lost, however, by a vote of 5-4 in the Court after Rehnquist reportedly lobbied O'Connor for her vote. Although the rest of VAWA remained law, it had lost the part that Biden most valued--the part that strove explicitly for equality.

Read the rest here.

One thing I found of particular interest in this story was how it played up the impression that Biden's reactions to the political and legal situation re VAWA were heavily influenced by the women in his life, or more precisely, his desire to protect them. This is something I've seen occasionally in men with whom I've worked -- except my own experience has been with men who've taken positions re: opportunity in professional or employment settings based on their sense (real or imagined) of their wives and daughters in those settings. (Didn't Obama do this in Denver, when he accepted the Democratic nomination and mentioned his own daughters' futures in relation to equal pay for equal work?) I have found that men with wives who work outside the home, or who see their daughters having professional futures, are more likely to be fair to women in the work-place and to give them equal opportunity there. That has meant that (typically younger) bosses with spouses who work outside the home have often done more to advance my career than men with stay-at-home wives.

But what may be motivating Biden is slightly different. His instincts seem paternalistic. The anecdotes from the story indicate that he is motivated to change the law because he realizes his wife's and daughter's vulnerability to violence. Fair enough, I guess. Better that he would want to do what he can, via law, than to be indifferent to their vulnerability. I just find it disappointing that more men don't view ALL women's inherent dignity as a reason for law-making that serves women's interests, be they personal/physical or professional.

Thanks to Sarah Farnsworth, 07, for passing along this story from The New Republic.

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