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Frustrated Friday July 24, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Politics, Presidential Politics, Sexism, Women's Issues.
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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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Supreme Sonia May 27, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in National Politics, Obama Administration, Politics, Supreme Court, Women's Issues.
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sotomayorIn a move not unexpected by court watchers, President Obama has nominated Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice David Souter.   Sotomayor’s name had been floated since Souter announced his retirement last month. 

In the intervening few weeks, Sotomayor has been thoroughly examined by the press and those Republicans expected to oppose any Obama Administration court nomination.  The problem for them is that nobody has been able to find much of a basis on which to oppose her.  She is a female member of the nation’s fastest-growing minority who has delivered opinions from her bench that are pretty centrist.  

One case Sotomayor heard that is garnering a lot of attention is Riccio v. DiStefano, where white firefighters in the city of New Haven, CT sued the city because the results of a promotional test were thrown out.  The city trashed the test because no minority applicants scored high enough to qualify for promotion.  The white firefighters sued, claiming race discrimination.  Sotomayor and one other jurist on the 3-member court decided in favor of the city and dismissed the case.  The firefighters are now pleading their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Red-faced and apoplectic, Conservatives have siezed on this case as an example of Sotomayor’s “judicial activism”.  Pat Buchanan of MSNBC said that this proved that Sotomayor believed in “reverse discrimination against white males”.  The Great White Whale himself, Rush Limbaugh, weighed in to bluntly call Sotomayor a racist  and President Obama a racist as well.  “He’s the greatest living example of a reverse racist,” Limbaugh blustered on his show yesterday.  Sean Hannity decried the “arrogance of hope” and excoriated the present administration for nominating “the most divisive nominee possible.” 

Of course, the New Haven case is more complex than just black and white (no pun intended).   Questions asked in the case include whether or not the written test took too much precedence over experience, if diversity in the upper ranks of the fire department is necessary (New Haven has a large minority population), if the test itself was discriminatory since no African-Americans passed, and if the entire promotional system for firefighters is fair to racial and ethnic minorities.  And, as David Axelrod told Chris Matthews on Hardball yesterday, Sotomayor did not make or change any laws in the New Haven case.  She just sided with the city who argued that throwing out the test was in the city’s best interests. 

But whatever the record says, it just doesn’t matter.  Conservatives have found the red meat they needed to throw to their base – the broad has it in for white men.  Keeping these guys angry keeps them (somewhat) viable, and the conservative constituency is tearing into the bloody steaks thrown out by Limbaugh and his ilk.

However these guys use their play books, it is certain that Sotomayor will be confirmed.  This was a masterful stroke by the Obama administration.  Republicans who oppose the nomination risk alienating women and Hispanics in droves, but if they vote for her, they risk alienating the Conservative base. 

The Republicans are going to have to tread very carefully here.  Indeed, more pragmatic and moderate (are there any left?) Republicans have muted their opposition.  Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine have both made conciliatory statements about the pick and Senator John McCain – who represents numerous Hispanic voters – has announced careful approval.

“They oppose her at their peril,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of his GOP colleagues and conservative activists who are leading the court fight. “I think this process is going to be more a test of the Republican Party than of Sonia Sotomayor.”