The flip side of the torrent of misogyny unleashed on Hillary Clinton this election season (and frankly, most of her professional life) is the idea that we should elect women because we have magical womanly qualities that will make us kinder, gentler, more effective leaders. We’re nurturing. We’re compassionate. We care for the earth and its inhabitants as if they were our own wee children.
This misguided softer side of sexism was exemplified recently by filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Louis C.K. Moore received a serious backlash on social media when he made the case for electing women by arguing, “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.” Louis C.K. went on a well-received pro-Clinton rant on Conan about electing her because she’s a mother, and mothers are vastly more effective than fathers. Constance Grady expands on his rationale:
C.K. obviously means well. He’s trying to compliment mothers in general and Hillary in particular, and to reframe the political liability of her gender into an asset. But he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure.
This brand of benevolent sexism comes into relief when we have a woman running against a misogynist sexual predator. Numerous politicians condemned Donald Trump because the fact that they had daughters, wives or sisters gave them the superhuman ability to realize how toxic Trump is. Tim Kaine nearly got the vapors in the vice presidential debate because his wife and daughters would hear him repeat that Trump had called women “pigs” and “dogs,” by far some of the mildest words Trump has ever uttered.
We often hear of political transformations that occur because a politician gains personal experience with an issue, like learning a son is gay and reevaluating a position on LGBT rights. It’s possible to isolate yourself from people of color or (out) LGBT folks, but virtually no one grows up without significant experience interacting with women. So why does this not allow men to view women as complex human beings, just as we are?
Jesse Singal at New York Magazine dives into this question:
Glick explained that the overarching theory here is that benevolent sexism evolved culturally as a way to maintain the gender hierarchy while also allowing men to enjoy close companionship with women, consensual sex, and so on. In other words: If you adopt the stance that part of your role is to protect your wife or girlfriend and to be made better by her goodness, then you get those aforementioned perks, without losing your place in the gender hierarchy. “You’re the knight in shining armor, you’re Prince Charming — rather than, ‘You’re the oppressor,’” said Glick.
Women, meanwhile, often benefit from benevolent sexism in the crude, unfortunate sense that it’s simply better than the alternative. Laurie Rudman, a social psychologist at Rutgers who studies sexism, made this point in an email. “We live in a patriarchy,” she wrote. “The best women can hope for is benevolent sexism (being cherished and adored by men who love you). It’s a small pedestal that you can fall off easily, but it’s better than being harassed, raped, and demonized.”
As Grady points out, the historical sins of women have often been erased because we are erased from history in general. But there is nothing inherently special about women that means if we elect women we won’t have wars or poverty. Some women are jerks. Some women have stupid ideas. Some women are violent. Some women are unqualified to hold office. You know, like human beings.
We should elect the right women because they’re smart. They understand policy and have good, progressive proposals. They will listen to the stories of people impacted by their policies and represent their constituents. They have experience as women in our society that provides valuable perspective and can inform effective policymaking. We should elect women because they have the potential to be just as good as men at the job, and because we deserve to see ourselves reflected in our government.