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What Do Women Want?


If Hillary Rodham Clinton had given the speech she gave Saturday conceding the Democratic nomination to Sen. Barack Obama at any point in her campaign – an enthusiastic, honest talk that, finally, told us that she was indeed running to shatter the glass ceiling in American politics – I might have actually paid a lot more attention.

I might have even voted for her.

But Clinton and her campaign spent their time trying to play by rules set down by the men who run television news. And like most big American businesses, television has a basic precept when it comes to women: No matter what, do not complain about sexism because complaining about sexism means you’re a whiner who hates men. Whining is unattractive and hating men, well, that’s just dumb.

Clinton did the old “personal note” dodge (code for “I know this might make you uncomfortable….”) but her speech finally gave an authorative voice to what pretty much every woman working in and around politics knows: It’s a boy’s game. “I am a woman and like millions of women I know there are barriers and biases out there – often unconscious,” she said.

Ya think?

Now, let’s be clear, Clinton lost not because of sexism. She lost for many reasons, among them her husband’s mouthy showboating, her tin ear for racial politics, her lousy get-out-the-vote efforts and, above all, her failure to understand that this really was not the year when a female candidate could build a lawyerly case for her moving back into the White House.

There was and is a need for dramatic change in American politics today. And the Clintons missed it.

They missed in large part because they played a 1992 game and 1992 politics was dominated by television and other mass media outlets who have long barred women from talking about politics. In that environment, the dirty tricks and sex role stereotyping that the Clintons employed to discredit women like Gennifer Flowers worked effectively because they played to the sexism of those covering politics. But that day is fading away. And one of the frustrations that many women had about Hillary Clinton was her inability to see that sexual freedoms and feminism are fused in the minds of many young women.

That’s not a change that’s been reflected in the national conversation about politics, however.

Women working on-line have long been aware of this disconnect and frustrated by its effects. For the most part, “blogger” means “young white man”; they’ve been able to dominate political talk on-line because their popularity is supported and encouraged by Big Media producers, op-ed page editors and the political establishment. Meanwhile, we girls get Glam and “MommyBlogging” and Shine where the bad news is about calories and sexually transmitted diseases, not about economic discrimination against women or the lousy state of prenatal health care for most mothers.

In the past few months, the conversation about who – and how – political discourse is conducted in this country has moved past the “oh, interesting” stage and moved on to something more substantive. Just last month, the Washington Post’s omsbudsperson Deborah Howell noticed – gasp! – that her newspaper’s editorial pages are dominated by older white men. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof followed up with a blog post on the subject that’s generated more than 500 comments – five times more than anything else he’s done recently.

Right now, it’s just talk. Progress is going to be slow and painful. Take a look at MSNBC’s self-styled “liberal” Countdown’s lineup of “friends” and you’ll find two women, one of whom is charged with “covering” American Idol. This, of course, is cousin to the network that the Clintons – with reason – singled out for Chris Matthew’s inane questions and observations. (An aside: If Chris Matthews were a woman would she be on TV? With that hair?) CNN’s no better and you really don’t want to rehash Katie Couric’s status at CBS, do you? Me neither.

In issuing her “personal note” on the frustrations of being a working woman in American, Clinton has given voice – finally – to an enormous amount of frustration and outrage. She has, one can hope, set the stage for women to note the presence of discrimination in their workplace and in their profession. She has, one can hope, made it acceptable to ask men – and women, while we’re on the subject – to stop being satisfied with one voice representing the various points of view held by women in America today and to look past gender when hiring and recruiting. And she’s done so with a new tone – and 18 million people behind her.

Clinton’s most fervent supporters are and were right when they note that sexism is an acceptable part of our culture. But their comments about the patriarchy are dated notions of what constitutes acceptable behavior today. They are strident, they do whine and many, many of them do hate men. It keeps them from seeing the gains that have been made.

Clinton did a nice job of sending that sort of rhetoric on its way to the dust bin of history Saturday. Too bad it’s too late to put her in the White House.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:00 AM | Permalink

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