A blog by Barry Edelson

White Women Can't Jump

Or Wear Pants

When Madeleine Albright was first tapped to be secretary of state, she gave an interview on television in which she talked about the difference she found among her male and female college students. The boys, she said, were quick to get into a class discussion and didn't hesitate to cut others off and jump right in. The girls, on the other hand, were more hesitant about interrupting and tended to wait to be called on. Albright said that she fought hard to overcome this bit of cultural gender baggage by encouraging the girls to be as aggressive and assertive as the boys.

When I heard this, I remember doing one of those cartoon double-takes, á la Jon Stewart, rattling my head rapidly in disbelief. Did she really say that? Instead of teaching the boys to be more like the girls—i.e., civilized—she taught the girls to be more like the boys—i.e., rude? Yes, that is unmistakably what the first female secretary of state said. To make it in the big bad world of the boys, you've got to beat them at their own game. Or words to that effect.

Which begs the question: why exactly have women been fighting for equal rights for the last century and a half? So that they can have equal opportunity to behave as miserably as men? When I was growing up and the women's movement was young, a familiar topic of discussion was whether there would still be wars if women were in charge. The consensus at the time was that the world would be unquestionably more peaceful if women steered the ship of state. Indeed, this was one of the major rationales that proponents of women's rights offered in favor of their cause: that women could not possibly screw up the world as badly as men had.

How quaint the notion seems now. Certainly there would be wars if the likes of Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice are the most prominent exemplars of the female gender. Historians must have always chuckled quietly to themselves as they ticked off the list of ruthless female despots. Had no one heard of Cleopatra? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Mary Queen of Scots? Well, revolutions have never been too smart about learning the lessons of the past.

Power has no race or gender.

Let's get this straight: I am not suggesting that we return to the days when women were no more than men's property (regrettably still the case in much of the Muslim world—read "200 Lashes" for more on that subject), or even to the better part of the last century, when women enjoyed the full rights of citizenship in virtually all Western countries but still had few career prospects to speak of. Surely, girls should not grow up thinking they are less worthy than men; any sort of bigotry has a devastating, corrosive effect on both its victims and its perpetrators. But even at the tender age of 12 or 13, it was apparent to me that, while women deserved all of the opportunities that men enjoyed in life (if that's what they really wanted), it was exceedingly unlikely that they were any less apt to make a hash of those opportunities than men had always done.

The spectacle of Hillary Clinton's recent attempt to metamorphose into a white male factory worker is just the latest absurdity in the tragicomic history of women's quest for equality. It is hard to fathom how a woman as brilliant as Sen. Clinton could fail to see the irony in this perverse strategy, in staking her claim to the Democratic nomination on being more of a tough guy than the guy she is running against.

It is quite obvious that this strategy would be utterly useless if her opponent were not a well-educated black man, but that is really beside the point. Politics is often no more elevated than establishing yourself as "not the other guy". We will dispense, in the interest of brevity, with discussion of her shameful pandering to precisely the kind of racist sentiment that the senator's husband has spent a lifetime denouncing. The Clintons are nothing if not opportunistic, even if seizing the opportunity of the moment demands the wholesale compromise of their principles.

Some, of course, would argue that Hillary and Bill have no principles to compromise in the first place. Others would say that their willingness to get down and dirty is what makes them so formidable. Indeed, this has been her main argument ever since she lost her lead to Barack Obama months ago. Imagine what the Republicans are going to dish out in the fall, she says. Who do you want carrying the Democratic standard, a novice with a glass jaw or a woman who knows how to wear the pants in the family? And don't anyone dare use the "b" word: that's just sexism. Why isn't a woman allowed to be tough without being criticized or denigrated for it?

There's a very good reason why: because we expected a lot more of women. We expected that a society in which women held equal sway with men would bear the imprint of the female sensibility—would be less violent and more nurturing of its citizens—not that women would descend to the level of their male tormenters. What we failed to see at the outset was that equal rights for women would not lead to a softer world or even to equality of the sexes, but simply to a power struggle with a different complexion. Power has no race or gender. Hillary Clinton's candidacy, for better or worse, is a fitting symbol of the unrealistic ambitions of all liberation movements. By all means, allow women to blaze any trail they like. But let us please dispense with the nonsense that either gender has a claim of superiority over the other.

May 15, 2008

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