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Frustrated Friday July 24, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Politics, Presidential Politics, Sexism, Women's Issues.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

screamEarlier this week, I read a piece in The American Prospect by Courtney E. Martin  about the lessons that Sarah Palin’s rise and candidacy can teach feminists.  One of Martin’s main points is that “women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity”. 

That may be – but is a woman’s femininity actually defined by the ability to “flex their muscles while painting their fingernails”, as Martin says in her article?  Sarah Palin is, undoubtedly, an attractive woman.  Can only an attractive woman wearing an updo and stilettos be considered feminine?  Answering this question then leads us to the next – can only “feminine” women be viable candidates for public office? 

The last election cycle was rampant with sexism.  On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was vilified for her pantsuits and steely character.  Her appearance and apparent “lack of femininity” was a frequent talking point as well as the basis for many late-night comics jokes.   Remember when Hillary teared up in New Hampshire?  I and many of my female friends were appalled – there is no circumstance where any serious woman will cry at work – but we were further horrified by the reaction to it.  Hillary showed she was human!  Hillary “softened up” and let us see the “real” person behind that facade!  Then, Hillary won the primary, reinforcing the stereotype that only a “womanly woman” could capture our attention. 

On the Republican side, there was Sarah Palin.   As a party not known for it’s equal opportunity for women and minorities, Republicans saw the hunger in American women for a female on the ticket and in what could have been a brilliant political move, picked a woman for number two.  But instead of reaching into the pool of Republican women with actual experience and gravitas (Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Susan Collins, Kay Granger, or Olympia Snowe), the party went with Sarah Palin. 

Sarah Palin was placed on the ticket as the “anti-Hillary”.  As Amanda Hess explains in her July 22 blog post  in the Washington City Paper, “Palin’s femininity wasn’t just tolerated—it was magnified, obsessed over, and valued above her qualifications. Palin’s femininity wasn’t respected as a personal choice—it was practically a prerequisite for her position.”  When Palin’s lack of knowledge and experience started becoming widely known, the party yelled “sexism” every time she was criticized.  What was lost on her loyal cadre of supporters, however, was that the Republican party made a sexist move by placing her on the ticket above so many more well-qualified women.

Last week, President Obama named Dr. Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General.  Benjamin is an Alabama family-practice physician who founded a clinic in Bayou La Batre, LA and has rebuilt it twice after hurricanes and fire.  She now operates the clinic out of a rented house and, in a town where about 40 percent of residents are without health insurance, she won’t turn any patient away for inability to pay.  Benjamin has also served as the first black woman to head the State of Alabama Medical Association and was associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine.benjamin

So, has the news about Dr. Benjamin focused on her selfless service to medicine and the medically under-served populations of the rural south?  Has all the reporting on her appointment focused on her excellent qualifications?  Of course not!  It seems as though the biggest news about Dr. Regina Benjamin is that she “appears to be about 40 pounds overweight” and is not an appropriate choice to lead the nation’s public health program. 

Despite the fact that many studies have shown that being overweight does not necessarily equal poor health, the anti-fat bias machine got to work right away.  “Obesity kills over 400,000 Americans per year,” said public health “expert” and Anti-Gym owner Michael Karolchyk said on Fox News while dressed in his classy “No Chubbies” t-shirt.  As an article in Harvard Health Policy Review reported in 2003: “The major problem with this ‘obesity kills’ statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it.” 

But let’s not get overburdened with these pesky facts here.  Regina Benjamin is a woman, and no matter what her accomplishments and resume say, she has committed the cardinal sin for all women – being overweight.  Poor Dr. Benjamin.  She is facing the triple whammy of discrimination – racial minority, female, and – horror of all horrors – overweight.  Dr. C. Everett Koop was no skinny-Minny, but he was never attacked for his somewhat substantial girth.

nutri-system-press-2008_0003-312x425For women, this emphasis on looks is deeply ingrained in the popular culture.  It drives me to absolute distraction every night when I’m watching The Situation Room to see Jillian Barberie Reynolds (Fox NFL sports reporter and Nutri-System success story) tossing a football to Dan Marino – all while dressed in her skimpy bikini.  When do I get to see Marino in a Speedo?  Just as Dan Marino in a Speedo has nothing to do with his career as a football player, why does Reynold’s football reporting career hinge on how good she looks in an orange bikini?

During the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, the (white and male) Republican Senators made much of the New Haven firefighter case whereby some white and male applicants for promotion were denied when the city decided to throw out the promotional exam.  There was a lot of sympathy on the right – and some on the left –  that these poor guys should have just been judged on their qualifications – not their ethnicities or skin colors.  Why can’t women get the same?



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