Sonia versus Sarah

Sarah Palin. Sonia Sotomayor. These two women have almost nothing in common except gender – and a little time in the public eye. But thereby hangs a tale. And a look at how opportunity is and was created in this country.

Sonia Sotomayer’s success is due in no small part to the willingness of Ivy-league institutions to accept students without regard for their economic status. As recently as 30 years ago – when student loans were new, Pell Grants went by an ugly series of initials (BEOG) and yuppies didn’t exist, places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton underwrote college tuition for pretty much anyone smart enough to get accepted.

You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist. You didn’t have to be a varsity-level jock. You just had to get admitted to the school and fill out a bunch of forms. If you needed the money – and you were in – the schools would help. And if you got in and you needed money half-way through, most would help with that, too.

It wasn’t rosy, no one should think it was. Ivy-league schools were expensive then and anyone getting financial aide worried not just about getting through four years but getting the loans paid off once they got out. That’s probably why we’ve got so very many lawyers in this country.

Today it’s almost impossible for a student at any of those schools to “work their way through”. Tuition is simply too expensive, grants harder to come by, loan terms more restrictive – and this is before the economic crisis that’s cut many an endowment fund off at the knees.

In contrast to Sotomayor – who’s got a smile that can light up a room – we’ve got Sarah Palin. It’s been hard to decide what to make of Palin. She’s grasping and self-righteous and possessed of an intelligence that gives her – let’s be polite – a shrewd sense of how to take the best advantage of an opportunity. But, hey, that’s politics. And her speech before the Republican National Convention was a great demonstration of these skills. She’s a good campaigner; voters like her.

But Palin’s path to national-level success seems to rest almost entirely on her personal charms. It’s hard to believe given her recent public outbursts, that Palin can be charming. But a lot of Republican men seem to think she is attractive and they are anxious to recruit more women to the party. That’s how Palin got nominated to be vice president.

Plenty of women take advantage of their looks to succeed – and Palin with her five kids and handsome “first dude” of a husband does a good job of winking to those who can’t play that game but who don’t mind her doing so. They would if they could. When Palin raids Nieman Marcus her supporters understand that she deserves something nice – just as they do – after years of hard, thankless work. And Palin’s look – sexy Mommy – is very important. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (where she was a no show) earlier this year, the hot Librarian look – glasses, up-do, very high heels – was the look for young girls

Palin’s dilemma is that women who do take advantage of their looks – for a living – pretty much know it. You don’t see a lot of supermodels worrying about what David Letterman thinks of them or their families. And they certainly don’t issue press releases every time someone suggests that they’re somehow less than perfect. You have to have good and thick skin to succeed on a smile; it is a kind of cynical affirmative action. You’re getting help ’cause you’re cute – that’s it.

You also have to be pretty tough to make it through the nation’s legal establishment with a Spanish last name fighting the belief that formal affirmative action programs – which at their best are nothing more giving people a break on the basis of potential ability – are somehow zero-sum games. And while Sonia Sotomayor probably doesn’t mean to stand in contrast to Palin, her accomplishments give us a good look at how opportunity on the basis of ability – not personal charm or looks – is the better course.

A lot of breath will be wasted in the U.S. Senate today about Sotomayor’s success because of her minority status. To which the answer should be “So what?” Very little of that sort of criticism is leveled at Palin who represents women in the Republican party – a minority if I ever saw one. But between the two of them, we can get a look at how affirmative action should work and why it’s still very much needed.

A policy designed to help those who have the proven ability to help themselves – getting into Princeton and Yale ain’t easy – is one that by its open-handed faith has the power to discourage those whose only real ability is to look out for number one.

Michelle Obama’s Armed Insurrection

So, what is is about Michelle Obama’s arms that’s inspired a national semi-obsession?

Everybody’s got a pair. Why are her’s so special? Well, there’s the obvious. Among women of a certain age and class – a class that doesn’t involve lifting anything heavier than a soy latte – toned arms are a status symbol. For mothers with children, firm delts say “enough money to pay a nanny and make time to go to the gym.”

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The Content of Our Character

Let’s be clear: If Sen. Barack Obama is not elected president tomorrow it will indeed be because he’s black.

It won’t be because he’s not tough enough – that’s a euphemism that questions Obama’s judgement and suggests that the color of his skin makes his thought process somehow inadequate. And it won’t be because he’s a “graduate student” – that’s a jab that implies that Obama’s not really that smart – he can’t be, he’s black.

No, if Obama loses it will be because a large number of Americans can’t bring themselves to vote for a man with dark skin. They may feel Obama is not “ready” – code, like all these other phrases, for “not a white person we can trust”. They may not like the idea of a First Lady – silly title, really – who is very dark-skinned and “angry” – which is how whites often describe black folks who aren’t obviously grateful for the “opportunities” they’ve had.

Each of these euphemisms ignores a simple fact: African-Americans who have done well at the nation’s top law firms, its Ivy League universities, its corporate boardrooms have had to demonstrate perseverence, judgement, diplomacy, intelligence and toughness and fortitude. More so, much more so, than their white counterparts.

That’s on top of the the obvious insults. For the past few days, the Republican Trust Political Action Committee has been airing a television commercial here in San Francisco that neatly sums up all the criticism of Obama, imagined and otherwise. It claims Obama’s “power base” was built in the church run by Rev. Jeremiah Wright and accompanied by pictures – and some audio – of Rev. Wright talking about the “KKK” and “god-damn” America. The ads end: “Barack Obama, too radical, too risky.”

What’s interesting about this ad isn’t what it says – same old, same old from a political party that’s happily scared the daylights out of white folks for a generation – it’s where it’s running. San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. But it is not a white city; it’s Asian, mostly Chinese. The ad I’ve described is aimed at instilling fear in those immigrants, taking a racist stereotype that many may know and imposing in on a man they may not.

It’s scurilous, it’s racist and well, it tells you what many, many people really think about Obama. The Wright ads are a slightly more sophisticated version of the scenario concocted by that Texas college student who dreamed up an attack by a tall black man who was supposed enraged by her John McCain bumper sticker. The subtext: Be afraid of Obama because, given the chance, black people will inflict deliberate harm on whites out of anger, jealousy or revenge.

This nonsense is not confined to the stupid or the politically naive. How else can you explain the speculation that Gen. Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama was motivated by racial solidarity? Or silly Monica Crowley’s dismay that Jet and Ebony magazines had gotten better treatment on the Obama campaign plane than writers from the New York Post and Washington Times? This nonsense is nothing more than a variation on another theme: It is very hard for people of different races to truly see one another but, for crying out loud, they don’t all think alike.

This is one ugly mirror of race relations in this country, a mirror that not very many white folks like to look at. Which is something that – if Obama does win – will start to change.

Everyone has their shopping list on this one. My great hopes is that Obama’s election will do away with a lot of nonsensical chatter about “post-racial.” This is a stupid phrase that’s code for “do they know?” as in “Does Michelle know she’s the only black woman in the room?” The answer to that question is obvious: If you were the only white woman in a room of African-Americans would you “know”?

“Post racial” is how people in power describe a world they think welcomes black folks. This is a world that many of them – as Time columnist Joe Klein put it awkwardly – don’t really understand. With reason. The most amusing thing about the Charlie Rose show where Klein made his comments was also the most appalling. In an election year that has seen two historic candidacies, a black man and a white woman run hard for the Democratic Party’s nomination and break our concept of what it means to be a successful politician, Rose’ guests, all talented journalists from “major” outlets, were all men and they were all white. I guess the “qualified” female commentators are still bitterly weeping over Sen. Clinton’s loss so they didn’t have time for Rose. And, of course, the black reporters are all on the Obama campaign plane, reveling in their new found status.

This would be a very different election if, as Obama has suggested, this country had a conversation about race and race relations and not just between white guys talking to themselves about themselves. Events – the stock market crash first and foremost – have taken the urgency of that exchange off the table. But in a nation where whites will soon be a large minority, not a majority, it’s one that’s needed, regardless of who wins tomorrow.

Sows’ Purses, Pigs’ Ears

This is a year where the sexist and racist stereotypes we all share are going to get folded, bent and mutilated in ways that will offend each and every one of us at one point or another. Americans discuss their differences in code and this may well be the year when the code get deciphered in some new ways for new audiences.

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Sarah Smile

But this year, even though there will be debates (assuming her name stays on the ticket) between the two veeps it doesn’t feel as though Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s been picked as a contrast with Sen. Joe Biden…No, it seems as though Sarah Palin is meant to provide a contrast to Michelle Obama.

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Thugs in the Newroom

A few weeks ago, I said that it was time that women in various professions – politics and journalism – start pointing out sexist behavior and demanding that it stop. Well, Jessica DaSilva, a young woman in Tampa, Florida, and Clark Hoyt, a man in New York City, have given me an excuse to do just that. If you want to know why there are few women writing solid opinion journalism a look at DaSilva and Hoyt is a pretty good snapshot.

A post on DaSilva’s personal blog detailing a recent staff meeting at the Tampa Tribune announcing – again – lay-offs was the talk of the web this slow news weekend mostly because of the reactions DaSilva got from her colleagues. They offer an insightful look at how the mostly male news establishment goes about silencing enthusiasm and optimism.

“Wow, you really are young and naive, aren’t you?” “Jamie” writes on DaSilva’s site. “Someone sent me the link to your blog, and I almost had to laugh, it was so ridiculous. I’m truly amazed that in one of your other posts, you can tell reporters to stop whining and do something about their situation. What, praytell, young lady, would you like them to do? Let’s say you were at the Trib for 10 years and had a family to support; what would you do if you were laid off? (By the way, it’s laid off, not layed off. If you can read this, thank a copy editor.)” Jamie – who doesn’t submit his last name – finishes with a flourish: “Unfortunately, I would say that if most of the Trib staff (or any other newspaper’s staff, for that matter) reads some of your posts, you will make some serious enemies. That’s something you don’t want to do in this business; it’s WAY too small, and with the climate as it is now, you don’t want people against you. Give that some serious thought.”

And this post wasn’t a one-time event. Jamie repeats his threats in another comment. He – or perhaps “Jamie” is a she, the charge of sexism still stands – has a fellow-traveler in “Michael”: “I’m an editor at a medium-sized paper and I’m sending your name around to everyone I know in the business to make sure that you are never hired anywhere.”

Why is this an example of sexism? There’s the use of the “praytell young lady” for starters. Then, there’s the assumption that DaSilva doesn’t have – and won’t expect to have – a family to support. It would be nice if DaSilva’s case were isolated. But every woman in every newsroom knows it’s not; this is just a case of the threat made overt. And it’s why there’s precious little opinion writing by women.

Which brings us to one of the few doing the job, Maureen Dowd, and comments made by New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt. Hoyt’s since retracted any sort of intention that he meant to tell Dowd to “tone it down.” But that’s exactly what he was doing. But he then fell for one of the oldest dodges on the planet practiced by a woman well-versed in the sort of nonsense that came DaSilva’s way.

When she started covered politics there was a lot of “how dare she?” around Dowd’s writing and what was described by the male political press corps as her “feminine” style of reporting. These days, she placates that crowd, indulging in cheap shots that meld pop culture and paperback psychology in columns that read like nonsense to you and me by play well with the working political press corps who are in on all the inside jokes.

And she gets away with it. Why? Because, as Hoyt notes somewhat ruefully as he fell for her line, Dowd’s got a good defense: she’s a girl she can’t – as someone suggested in regard to “Jamie” be sexist. She – or perhaps they – can say these things the boys can only think. And no one can lay a hand on them – they’re girls talking about girls. It’s a particularly cynical ploy on Dowd’s part but it’s masterfully executed.

But it’s hollow. When Dowd uses female gender images to talk about male candidates – as she does with Obama and did with Al Gore – she’s associating them with weakness. And just because no one’s complained – as she told Hoyt – doesn’t mean it’s not sexist. It is. That’s not playing with gender stereotyping, as Dowd maintains, it’s playing into gender stereotyping. Hoyt’s failure to think through his critique – from all sides – does as well. He treats Dowd with kid gloves and fails to examine one of her great failings as a columnist.

So you can see why it’s hard to know what will become of Jessica DaSilva, a young and clearly ambitious women. Perhaps, in 10 years or so, we’ll be able to read her observations about Chelsea Clinton’s presidential campaign and we’ll get insight, not cringe-inducing snipes about Daddy’s girlfriends and Mommy’s ambition that parade as the “woman’s” voice on politics. Maybe.

But maybe DaSilva will, instead, end up working for Michael and Jaime’s associates and this is the last we’ll hear of her clear, smart voice. Maybe she’ll figure if she has to spend half her time placating the boys on the bus just to have a little peace in the newsroom, she’ll quit or – despite her inclinations – content herself with soft features, not breaking news and strong opinion.

So next time you wonder why there aren’t any women writing opinion journalism or op-eds, consider Dowd and DaSilva and the obstructions – self-made and otherwise – that lie in front of both.

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.

The Bigger Loser

In the end, it’s hard to avoid a second conclusion, one that undercuts pretty much every statement Clinton’s made about her historic run for the White House. This isn’t about her. It’s about them.

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Female Trouble

Instead, because of sensibilities of its editors or, even worse, what its editors (wrongly) think of as the delicate sensibility of its female readership, the Times had to twitter around like a bunch of high school cheerleaders, stepping all over a decent story about the role that lobbyist have played in the political career of a man who has sworn to opposed “special interests”.

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Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

There’s a lot being made lately about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s inability to attract “professional” women to her cause. There’s also a lot been made about Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to talk to feminists. And then there’s the whole idea of “change” which gets a lot closer to women’s problems voting for Clinton than anyone wants to admit.

On the surface, Clinton’s inability to get traction with a wide swath of professional women is something of a contradiction. The assumption as you connect the dots across the magazine cover stories and front-page profiles is that “feminists” and “professional” women are the same crowd with the same interests: women who want to see another woman in the White House.

There are plenty of women with high-powered jobs who are happy to call themselves “feminists” and who are supporting Clinton’s candidacy. But there are just as many – the more calculating perhaps, the more moderate, maybe – who understand that in many circles “feminist” is code for “lesbian”. Or they’re women – and they are legion in partners’ meetings and board rooms – who believe feminism is politics and that politics has no place in business because such ideas – spoken or not – do not sit well with their male colleagues. Judging by her behavior in the Senate and on the campaign trail, Clinton in, in many respects, one of these women. One who has pulled her punches – in her love life and her professional life – to succeed.

Clinton’s new-found ability to cover her desire to wield power with a softer touch, her somewhat stiff and stilted delivery, her get-it-done-at-all-costs failure-is-not-an-option view of the her campaign, along with that train-wreck of a marriage are all earmarks of a very brittle version of the 21st century American womanhood, one that calls for almost constant, visible, unending compromise on all fronts.

Hillary Clinton is prepared, she is ready and – partly because she’s spent her life being held to a higher standard – she’s about as much fun as a nun at a co-ed summer camp. And she is in many respects the woman her peers – often desperately – do not want to be, a woman many are afraid they have become. In almost every area of her life, Clinton’s followed a remarkably cautious course – marriage to the politician, not entering politics, putting up with his philandering, not striking out on her own (even out of pride), cutting a moderately conservative course (on the Iraq War, on international diplomacy on health care), not bringing anything truly radical to the debates about the nation’s future.

Clinton is also a woman who – correctly or not – is see to have somehow not gotten this boy-girl, husband-wife thing down. Let’s face it, there are plenty of women who would happily sleep with Bill Clinton but precious few would sign up for a lifetime of on-and-off commitment. That’s another sacrifice Hillary Clinton appears to have made and for lots of women (paging Maureen Dowd) this is what rankles the most.

If the tired old saying about presidents is true – Americans elect the man you want to have beer with – then there’s a female corrallary and Hillary Rodham Clinton is not a woman you’d take shopping. Her husband? Hell, yes. Maybe even her daughter who clearly knows her way around upper Madison Avenue. But the Senator? Nah. And it ain’t just the pantsuits. It’s her sensibility. Clinton’s the woman who will ask why you need another pair of black shoes, not the one who will remind you that Christian Louboutin is only on sale at Nieman’s Last Call for about 10 seconds and if those things fit, you better grab ’em. Now.

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to hammer home this contrast. Oprah – a successful career woman by any stretch of the imagination – shows up on stage at a political rally in a warm silver pantsuit, a little low-cut and a lot sexy. You may never watch her TV show but man, if you’re going to be 50 any time soon, you wanna look as good as Oprah does. And you want to be as fun and as interesting, as likable as she appears to be. Not to mention the boyfriend.

That’s not to say Clinton isn’t likable. She is gracious, well-spoken, a good politician and, increasingly, a comfortable and savvy campaigner. But she’s not standing before her peers saying she’s going to make great changes in their lives or hers. She’s telling us she’s going to keep doing what it takes to keep going. And for some that’s just not good enough anymore.