Wed, Jun 25, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Sexism haunting US election even after Hillary’s exit

The fact that part of the public is worried Michelle Obama could be a ‘femi-nazi’ is a problem that plagues the US political scene

By Mark Lawson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The scrutiny of the candidates’ spouses is a traditional sideshow in the summer of a US election, but this time it has added spice, because the discussion of what kind of woman the country would prefer to stand beside the guy taking the oath of office occurs after a campaign that rejected the most plausible female candidate for presidency there has ever been.

Four election cycles since she traded cookie recipes with Barbara Bush in an attempt to deflect fears about her feminism, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is forced to watch Michelle Obama going through the same process simply to gain a non-elected job that becomes available only through an accident of marriage.

The Democratic candidate’s wife appeared on The View, a US talkshow with an all-female panel, in what looked like an attempt by her husband’s media strategists to soften her image and correct an impression of black, leftwing militancy that has been spread on the web and picked up in other media.

We have come to accept that presidential candidates will have to address “character issues,” but to watch their partners being spun — and, in this case, specifically home-spun — induces fresh levels of depression with the political process.

Commendably, though, Michelle Obama went sufficiently off-message to suggest that she believes Clinton to have suffered from sexism. Well, she should know: The same prejudice led to the need for her to make this appearance.

The sexual politics will become even more noxious if Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama opts for a woman running mate. Sharing the ticket with Clinton seems unlikely, but Kansas Governor Katherine Sebelius is a possibility. If the job were offered, though, the governor might want to think hard about whether politics is ready for a gender shift, even in this secondary position. Has there been any progress in the quarter-century since Geraldine Ferraro made history as the first female vice presidential nominee, but failed partly because of suspicion over her marital finances?

Clinton didn’t lose the Democratic nomination because she was a woman: It was her misfortune that her run coincided with the offer of an even more progressive and historic candidate. But it’s clear from the campaign that, even now, non-male contenders have to face pressures that are never suffered by men: an antiquated, muttering sub-debate over how they dress, speak, feel and whether they provoke castration complexes in the male population.

US broadcaster Katie Couric, the first full-time female anchor of a nightly news bulletin, this week posted an angry video blog suggesting Clinton lost partly because of “the continued and accepted role of sexism in America — particularly in the media.”

Clearly, there was a testy empathy in Couric’s words, as she may attribute her low ratings at CBS to the possibility that a section of the population not only doesn’t want a woman in charge of the country but won’t even tolerate a woman reading out the facts about what the men who run the nation are doing.

Even so, only a redneck who’s had too many beers could seriously argue with Couric’s central point. There was chortling reporting of placards at Clinton rallies reading “Iron My Shirt,” and novelty Clinton nutcrackers on sale at airports. Yet public expression of similar prejudice toward Barack Obama — signs, perhaps, reading “Shine My Shoes” or keyrings with simulation shackles — would, quite properly, lead to front-page outrage and criminal investigation.

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