We’re winning the war on us!

Rand Paul has some good news for the women folk: if there’s a war on women, we’re winning it. This is based on a thorough investigation of his extended family:

This whole sort of war on women thing, I’m scratching my head because if there was a war on women, I think they won. You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school, and 85% of the young people there are women. Law school, 60% are women. In med school, 55%. My younger sister is an OB-GYN with six kids and doing great. I don’t see so much that women are downtrodden. I see women rising up and doing great things. In fact, I worry about our young men sometimes because I think the women are outcompeting the men in our world […]

The women in my family are doing great. That’s what I see in all the statistics coming out. I have, you know, young women in my office that are the leading intellectual lights of our office. So I don’t really see this, that there’s some sort of war on women that’s, you know, keeping women down. I see women doing great and I think we should extol that success and not dumb it down into a political campaign that somehow one party doesn’t like women or that. I think that’s what’s happened. It’s all been for political purposes.

This is obviously a myopic view on the state of women’s rights, but it doesn’t only reflect the musings of an out-of-touch senator. There are many elements in this argument that surface in all kinds of debate about our supposedly post-racial, post-feminist world.

  • Defining social justice progress by your limited experience. Paul makes assumptions about the state of women in general because “the women in my family are doing great.” And The Cosby Show proves that racism is over. We’ve seen in the past how politicians’ (and the average person’s) viewpoints change when someone close to them is affected by an issue. But we can’t wait for every member of Congress to have a son come out of the closet or a daughter deal with wage discrimination. The kind of people who become senators in many cases are not likely to be close to some to of people most affected by inequality in this country. (Though, as Amanda Marcotte points out, Rand Paul only has to look around Congress to see that women haven’t reached parity since they hold less than 20% of the seats).
  • Focusing on the most privileged subgroup. Related to the first point, when Paul does go beyond his immediate experience to cite statistics they focus on the narrow issue of women’s representation in higher education. That’s an incredibly important advancement, but leaves out millions of poor and working class women who bear the brunt of the economic downturn. In fact, Paul wants to make things worse for many of those women by capping benefits for women who have children out of wedlock.
  • Picking and choosing “acceptable” rights. While ignoring many groups of women, Paul also leaves out critical issues that can’t be left out of any definition of women’s equality. As Marcotte notes, “While Paul didn’t mention little things like abortion or contraception, the implication was clear: Women have it pretty good, so there’s no reason to get all bent out of shape about attacks on reproductive rights, ladies. You get to go to school now, so why complain about losing access to basic medical care? After all, Paul’s own sister has six kids and a medical practice, so if unwanted child-bearing throws you off your game, it’s your fault for not having a wealthy congressman for a father.”

Despite the fact that Paul’s contention focuses on a definition of women’s success that can be easily dismissed, it’s still enough to spark a backlash. He states that he’s “worried” about women outcompeting men. That backlash has manifested in a slew of outrageous attempts to scale back women’s reproductive rights. There’s still a long way to go before we women can claim victory.


Weekend reading

overlay of MLK Jr. Way in over race map of Oakland, via Colorlines
overlay of MLK Jr. Way over race map of Oakland, via Colorlines

Residents of neighborhoods with a street named after Martin Luther King are $6,000 poorer than those in neighborhoods without one.

Characters who have, or just think about having, abortions in movies and TV often die.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The desire to put a history of American racism, which is to say a portion of America’s roots, in a corner is a kind of wish-fulfillment.”

President Obama draws attention to unjust application of drug laws, noting, “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

The entitlement of “good guys”

Last week’s episode of This American Life kicked off with a prologue about Ben Calhoun’s attempt to use his friend’s tactic of getting a “good guy” discount when he goes shopping. This basically amounts to saying “I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy, how about a discount?” and apparently it works for his friend 15-20% of the time.

While it was entertaining to listen to Calhoun struggle with his obvious discomfort, I found myself really wanting to hear more about the various power dynamics behind the whole concept. I immediately bristled at the entitlement behind the idea that someone would deserve a discount other people aren’t getting because he has the nerve to push for it (I’m sure most people who’ve worked in retail share my lack of surprise at the bemused response from a lot of the people he encounters).

The idea is itself gendered obviously; I’m not going to go into a store talking about what a “good guy” I am. While Calhoun doesn’t use the “you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy” line his friend recommends, it implies a brotherhood of sorts, a favor between friends that wouldn’t be accessible to most people. It’s interesting that four out of the five people he tries it on are women, and he does get a measly 5% discount from a woman at the end. But I really wanted to see how the experiment would play out with a variety of genders and races involved.

Can a young black man go to a white woman and get a “good guy” discount? What about a middle-aged woman to a young man? I can already imagine some people would come back with some women’s ability to flirt and get discounts and special treatment, but that’s exploiting a culture that objectifies women rather than an inherent entitlement and confidence people can use to make their way in the world. It reminded me of this great piece from last month about “life hacking” really being about white privilege:

A white man walked in. He surveyed the line and confidently jetted past it, over to an employee pushing a wheeled bin across the floor. He put his hand on the employee’s back. He said, “Hey buddy … can you do me a favor? I just have this one thing.”

I also just have this one thing, I thought. And, this line is for people who have one or more things, douchebag. And, you have no right to ask a “favor” that dicks over 18 people uninvolved in granting the “favor.”

I highly recommend reading how the whole thing spins out from there. We might  not get to see the experiment of how this “good guy” discount would play out for lots of different people, though we all can make some educated guesses. At least I can be happy with where Calhoun lands on the concept by the end of his cringe-inducing attempt.