Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Defining a female politician by reference to the men in her life

Many more female politicians serve in state houses and legislatures than was true a couple of decades ago, but it seems the media are still a bit uncertain how to "handle" them. At least that is one explanation for a story in yesterday's New York Times about Susana Martinez, Republican Governor of New Mexico. The headline is "New Mexico Governor Rushes to Undo the Agenda of her Predecessor," and the story is principally about how different Martinez, the nation's first Latina governor, is from Bill Richardson, whom she replaced following her 2010 election. She is, for example, scaling back the size of government, "crack[ing] down on illegal immigration," and cutting back on environmental protections. She also has sold the private plane in which the governor formerly traversed the state, as well as his two personal chefs.

But I already knew about many of Martinez's extreme positions, so what caught my eye was the side bar which seemed to focus on the men in her life, her husband and her father:

HUSBAND: Chuck Franco, former undersheriff of Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico

FATHER: Former deputy sheriff in Texas and boxer who won three straight Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s

Now, when's the last time you saw a male politician presented so obviously in relation to his wife and/or mother? I wonder what point journalist Marc Lacey or the New York Times editors are trying to make by featuring this information so prominently. Are they even aware of the double standard--or just giving readers information what they assume the readers want?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feminism, where were you in high school?

I arrived forty-five minutes late to my first class on feminist legal theory. The eyes of my professor and eleven classmates turned to me as I took my seat, embarrassed. Unfortunately for me, my moment in the spotlight did not end there. After I briefly introduced myself, my professor asked me whether I was a feminist. Catching me off guard, I gave my best answer, “I don’t know.”

At the time, my answer probably sounded noncommittal, even evasive. The reality is it reflected my ignorance. I answered truthfully that I did not even know what a feminist was—an actual feminist, not the “harpy”-like stereotype or derogatory meaning the word has adopted in male circles. You see, this class wasn’t just my first feminist legal theory class; it was my first exposure to feminist-anything.

What struck me the most during my first ever discussion about feminism is the fact that this was my first ever discussion about feminism. I was amazed at the ease with which my classmates raised feminist issues. They brought up topics like reproductive justice and gender binaries. Until then, I didn’t know there was a name for the concept of gender roles. The names of Catharine MacKinnon and Joan Williams were dropped into conversation. I wrote both names in my notes so I could google them after class. Over an hour later I left the room dumbfounded by my naiveté.

How have I managed to undertake nineteen years of schooling (thirteen years of public education, four years of college, and two years of law school) and not know anything about feminism or even what a feminist is? Ultimately, the blame rests on me for not proactively learning about it. Yet, perhaps I make a great example of why feminism should be taught in schools.

A high school student made a case more than two years ago. In a letter to President Obama shortly after his inauguration, the student aptly notes that feminism, along with every social justice movement, “deserves to be represented” in education. Furthermore, learning about feminism may indeed encourage “new thinking” among children and youth faced with gender biases at the youngest of ages. This next generation would be better armed to fight gender inequality.

The next generation includes our high school student, who was fortuitous to take feminist classes at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Her teacher was Ileana Jiménez. Jiménez’s student already displays the “new thinking” that feminism classes encourage, and she is not alone.

Alum of Jiménez’s classes have shared their stories of how feminism classes have affected them even while they’re in college. Students emerged able to “communicate . . . about their identity, including one’s gender and sexuality,” “stand up against sexism and misogyny,” and “challenge what’s wrong even if others . . . don’t feel inclined to do so.

If these positive testaments aren’t enough reason to bring feminism to schools, then I return to my original reason: ignorance. I am the antithesis of Jiménez’s students. Considering that this first class was my first conversation about feminism, I only wonder how many others are as naïve as I am. If there are as many as I fear, instead of creating young adults equipped to abolish gender inequality, schools are fostering another generation of inequality and sexism.

I am not as enlightened as Jiménez’s young students. I am a late-comer to the discussion on feminism. But, schooling is finally giving me the chance to learn. If I learn nothing else during this semester, I hope to at least learn the answer to the question, “Are you a feminist?”

Monday, August 29, 2011

Gender, power, and the subconscious

In “The Psyche on Automatic,” writer Craig Lambert profiles Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who researches “how people perceive and categorize others.” Lambert focuses on two main areas of Cuddy’s research: first, how individuals perceive warmth and competence as ends of a spectrum, and second, physical postures and their relationship to perceived power. Each of these areas pertains to gender studies.

Cuddy’s first finding was that “people tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” This finding has negative repercussions for women. In Joan Williams’ book “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It,” she points out that in eighteenth century Europe and nineteenth century America, a rearrangement of gender identities and stereotypes occurred. Whereas before, character traits associated with competition and cooperation were distributed evenly between the sexes, during this era men came to be assigned all the character traits associated with competition: ambition, authority, power, vigor, calculation, instrumentalism, logic, and single-mindedness. Women, by contrast, were assigned all the traits associated with cooperation: gentleness, sensitivity, expressivism, altruism, empathy, personalism, and tenderness.

Psychological studies suggest that men prefer "taking risks" while women prefer "working problems out completely"; whether these preferences are nature- or nurture-based is hotly contested. What is clear, however, is that the notion that "on average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive" while "men tend to be more competitive assertive, reckless, and emotionally flat" persists to this day.

Considering Cuddy’s research in light of Williams’ book, this would seem to suggest that society encourages women to express “a surplus of warmth,” while simultaneously perceiving this warmth as an indicator of their lack of competence.

On the male end of things, men may be socially discouraged from "seeming warm," even to their own detriment. As Deborah Rhode notes in her article "The 'No-Problem' Problem: Feminist Challenges and Cultural Change," "whatever our progress in encouraging women to pursue traditional male roles, we have been less effective in encouraging men to assume traditional female ones." Cuddy's article states that when individuals assess strangers, they place significant weight on whether or not that stranger seems personally warm, so coming across as extremely cold/competent is not ultimately beneficial.
Interestingly, Cuddy notes that it is not the warm/incompetent woman who is most likely to experience sexual harassment. Rather, cold/competent women tend to be sexual harassment’s targets. Cuddy theorizes that this is a sort of “active harm” that men direct at a group that is threatening (successful women) – a way of “’putting [women] in their place,’ or even expelling them from the environment.”

It is consistent with domesticity’s allocation of character traits for competition to men and for cooperation to women that men consider cold/competent women the greatest threat to their “superior” status. A modern, feminist man or woman could use Cuddy’s research to break away from negative aspects of the status quo in two ways: first, by being aware of and challenging his or her own assumptions about the correlation between warmth and competence, and second, by attempting to manifest traits inconsistent with his or her gender’s historical “assignment.” That is, men can consciously pursue cooperative tactics in the workplace, while women can develop their competitive sides. Individual men and women all would surely benefit by finding a workplace approach that is sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative.

Cuddy’s second finding was that nonverbal cues such as postures drive perceptions of competence. Postures that are expansive, open, and take up more space are associated with high power and dominance, while postures that are contractive and take up minimal space are associated with low power or being at the bottom of a social hierarchy.

Men are far more likely to assume expansive postures, while women are much more likely to cross their legs and arms, or to lean in – low-power positions. As with the warmth/competence spectrum, these subconscious but socially-learned patterns impact how individuals perceive women. When women sit in submissive postures, they are (perhaps unsurprisingly) perceived as submissive. Cuddy states that if female M.B.A.s (or lawyers) wish to be perceived as men’s equals, they should raise their chairs, and assume expansive postures during job interviews.

While this suggestion does impose a male norm upon women, it also seems good practical advice for getting past initial and deeply socially-rooted assumptions about sex and status. Men, too, can expand their posture repertoires by assuming more or less aggressive postures as is socially appropriate.