Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

It’s 2012, Or So I Thought

I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately.

Slow down, everyone. It’s not what it sounds like.

In the last year or so, it’s seemed as if about every third day, someone says something spectacularly nineteenth-century on the subject of women, women’s rights, and other sundry characteristics of women. Usually, the people saying these things are not themselves women. Which, in most cases, causes me to wonder what exactly convinces them that they’re qualified to even make opinion about these issues, let alone policy, and in too many cases, comes off as what it probably is: “hey, little lady, don’t you worry about a thing – I know what’s good for you.”

I’m remembering February of this year, at which time numerous state legislators proposed laws that would require women seeking abortions to undergo some form of internal probing as part of that process. Many commentators characterized those bills as state-supported rape; the Virginia bill earned Virginia governor Bob McDonnell several pointed nicknames – the most broadcastable (on public airwaves) of which was Rachel Maddow‘s “Governor Ultrasound”.

Virginia Democratic state delegate David Englin, an opponent of the bill, recalled his conversation with a GOP lawmaker who told him that women had already made the decision to be “vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.” Whoever that GOP lawmaker was … probably deserved to have the wits slapped out of him by whatever wife or girlfriend he may have been undeservingly lucky enough to still have.

Then in March, there was Sandra Fluke. Or rather, there was seemingly every middle-aged male pundit and commentator and alleged entertainer taking the opportunity to heap abuse upon on Ms. Fluke, who started out one week in March as a witness in a Congressional committee hearing and ended that week as the target of – I’m sorry, some of the most awful invective I can think of. To wit:

First this, from the host of the Rush Limbaugh Show: “[Sandra Fluke] goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Media analyst Eric Boehlert wrote, “Incapable of self-reflection, player after player … rushed forward to condemn the law student and/or to insist [Limbaugh] had done nothing wrong by, (a) insulting the young woman, (b) mocking her parents, (c) demanding she post videos of herself having sex online, and (d) suggesting she was using condoms when she was in elementary school.”

Then this reaction, from the then-presumed and now-confirmed Republican Party nominee for the office of President of the United States: “It’s not the language I would have used.” As columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Is there a right way to call a woman a slut?”

Commentator and former Congressional candidate Krystal Ball [who, predictably, takes heat for her name] wrote, “[S]peaking out for women’s health care certainly doesn’t [make you a slut]. Standing up for your rights doesn’t mean someone gets to rhetorically rip your top off in hopes to send you running from the public square in shamed humiliation, a cautionary tale for any woman who dares forget her place.”

In both blatant and veiled ways, for the past year particularly, lots of commentators and politicians who are public figures have been very willing to make remarks that reveal their utter disregard for women as human beings. I wonder how anyone can think that some of those remarks are actually okay. Do these people – do these men – know any women? Their mothers, perhaps? Do any of them have sisters? Nieces? Daughters? Bueller?

But … the moment that has really gotten me jumping up and down happened this week. Compared to the forced-ultrasound bill and the Fluke abuse and all the rest of the stupidity of 2012, this may at first sound perhaps a bit smaller in scale. But to me, it reveals just how insidious these attitudes and this behavior have become.


Writer Joan Vennochi wrote a column for the Boston Globe this week which was meant to highlight the policy differences between Sen. Scott Brown (R.-Mass.) and his Democratic challenger, Prof. Elizabeth Warren, in such a way that she could make clear that Prof. Warren’s ideas were preferable to Sen. Brown’s.

But the way she wrote it was, to me, strikingly bogged down in the stereotypical way women in politics (and in many parts of American life) are treated, still, in 2012. Well, perhaps she didn’t realize that it came across that way. But here are the parts of that piece of writing that attracted my attention, and my ire:

Agreed: Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren wasted millions on ads that turned her into every man’s worst nightmare: a smarter-than-thou older woman sporting granny glasses and sensible hair.”

I have to pause here and note: ooooooo. That’s a most threatening thing, indeed: a woman who might actually be smarter than thou. (Beats the hell out of holier-than-thou; which is another essay altogether.)

For the record, in case it matters to you – I like sensible hair.

Anyway, onward: “[S]olid, substantive differences that should matter to Massachusetts voters … are diverted by the same old superficial nonsense. Brown is a good-looking guy with a lovely wife and daughters. Is that reason enough to send him back to Washington for a full Senate term? Warren is dogged by the same questions that always dog women. Democratic consultant Dan Payne wonders about the whereabouts of her husband and other family members. And why is she wearing the same old red jacket? … No one asked that about Brown and his barn jacket.”

The aforementioned Mr. Payne went on local public radio station WBUR’s afternoon current-affairs conversation program, “Radio Boston”, to address the Warren campaign and the advice he would offer to them regarding what needed to be done to SAVE her candidacy from those pesky age-old issues whose presence we always seem to take for granted … issues “that always dog women”.

I pause for a moment to acknowledge that very rarely are actual issues and policy proposals super-big selling points in modern American politics, whether those political races involve men or women, and lately the truth appears to have skipped town altogether.

I now move forward with the previous line of thought, or rather, what Dan Payne thought was important to ensure Prof. Warren’s future political success.

Payne made two main arguments, based on a column he wrote recently for WBUR, called “What’s Wrong With the Elizabeth Warren Campaign”. The first argument was about Warren’s appearance; the second was about how she communicates her thoughts in ads, and during speeches and other public appearances. For absolute clarity, here’s the exchange, from the “Radio Boston” transcript (and you can listen to it here):

Meghna Chakrabarti: Tell us what you think is wrong with the Warren campaign.

Dan Payne: It’s her advertising. Her television commercials seem to turn off people. Women have told me they find her hectoring, they don’t like her attitude, she’s school-marmish. These are the opinions of people who support her.

Chakrabarti: It seems to me that “hectoring, school-marmish” — those are criticisms based on the image that’s being projected in her advertising and not necessarily of her policy or how she may or may not be connecting with people on the campaign trail.

Payne: Right. When she works a room, when she gives a talk, it’s a completely different dynamic. People who have seen her in person think she’s wonderful. Those who only know her through TV have real questions.

Chakrabarti: You wrote that Warren’s vocabulary is coarse, that she says things like, “Small business owners bust their tails every day,” in one of her ads. [A sound clip of Warren is played, in which she says, “For many years, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered…”] And you say that at the Democratic National Convention, she tried to convey toughness with words like rigged, hammered, corrosive, for example. [Another sound bite reveals Warren saying, “For many years, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered…”] These aren’t necessarily phrases you’d expect to hear from a Harvard law professor. But on the other hand, she grew up on Oklahoma, in a struggling middle class family. Maybe this is her?

Payne: It’s possible that she talks like this all the time. But if it’s intentional, it reflects a desire by the campaign to not sound like a Harvard professor, to sound like she can talk street talk with the best of them. I think she’s trying to say that she feels strongly about these things, but it just comes across in many cases as coarse.

Chakrabarti: On the other hand, you admit politics is like high school, how you dress and act defines you socially, and you want to see her dress in a more modern way, lose what you call “the granny glasses,” get a different haircut. It seems like these issues leap to the forefront with much greater speed when we’re talking about women candidates.

Payne: Sure, it’s possible. Well, you do hear it occasionally about men. I think people complain about Romney not being able to connect. When he tries to go off the cuff, he makes mistakes. He says things like, “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs.” … I was reflecting what women have told me about Warren. And they want to like her — that’s the shame of this. They want to like her.

Chakrabarti: We’ve only got under two months left until the actual election. Say her campaign is actually reading your commentary or listening to us. What if they did make these changes?

Payne: I like to think I performed a service. I think I told them things… maybe they had not heard before in this organized way.

Chakrabarti: If indeed any changes were made now, wouldn’t Warren be accused of being inauthentic?

Payne: I’m asking her to be more authentic. I want her to just sound like a human being, not read the script that makes her sound like some angry, hectoring school marm. But I hate to say it, about politics, but we live in a celebrity-based society, so a candidate for high office is considered a celebrity as well as a political figure. And so you’re judged as a celebrity is judged: by the way you present yourself.

Chakrabarti:I can imagine there are those out there throwing up their hands saying, “This is exactly what needs to change!”

[Chakrabarti now reads comments that, during the conversation, had been posted on WBUR’s website:]

Chakrabarti: “judiann1” wrote on wbur.org: “We need a government full of people like Elizabeth not an actress with a shiny veneer. We have a Congress full of these things.” And “travis” commented:This is exactly what is wrong with our current system, so far removed from basic democratic principles and issue-based voting. ‘Get New Glasses’?! ‘Soften the Hair’?! Shame on you guys for perpetuating such a laughable, ridiculous system.”

Payne: In general, you have to go with the flow. If people really believe they want to know something about you that goes beyond your name, party, issues — they want to know about your family, they want to get a feeling for you as a human, you have to do that, you have to respect the voters where they are. Now maybe that’s trivializing politics, but you can’t simply do commercials that say this is what I believe, this is what the other person believes and go back and forth like that. It just isn’t basically a useful way to communicate.


I pause for a moment to reflect that in those last two sentences, Payne (perhaps unwittingly) reveals what is shallow about his (and others’) political-consultant take on this subject, not to mention the exact thing that’s wrong with American politics.

Anyway, onward. One of the commenters on Dan Payne’s original article, posted at WBUR’s website, wrote in agreement with Payne (and, backhandedly, in support of Warren):

I’m with [Warren’s] political positions all the way. But I have to say: GET A NEW HAIRDO! This seems incredibly trivial, but it’s not. Everyone has an ‘identity kit,’ a roster of clues that others use to ‘place’ a person in society. Unfortunately, hers includes some rather unattractive visual cues. These can be fixed easily. Attractive people are more appealing to others. There’s no reason why these superficial signals have to put this great candidate at a disadvantage. Fix them – especially the hair!”

If I must remark about appearance, I would say that I have much less of a problem with someone who looks fairly close to average but has a whole lot to say, and much more of a problem with someone like Sarah Palin, who is all hair and makeup and the red-blooded middle-aged American man’s idea of what an attractive babe looks like, but doesn’t have a single reasonable policy idea to contribute to American politics, any coherent way to express any such idea, or any faintly firm grasp of American history – and proves it each and every darn time she shows up on television or drops a bowl of word salad on Twitter. You betcha.

But as this blog has so often been about words … so, finally, is this post.

Payne’s trouble with Warren, aided and abetted by Chakrabarti, is that her choice of words makes her sound like a “hectoring school-marm” and he’s uncomfortable with the fact that she chooses to talk tough. Ooooo. Must not sound “coarse” if you’re a woman.

When a male candidate “talks tough”, no one bats a flippin’ eyelash – in fact the candidate is praised for shooting straight, leveling with the American people, tackling the issues head-on. New Jersey’s blowhard governor, Chris Christie, routinely comes off sounding like a cross between Tony Soprano and Jabba the Hutt – and there are people who are actually considering him as a potential 2016 Presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren – who expresses an awful lot of thoughts with the kind of coherence and force that the Occupy movement might wish it could muster – and political and cultural commentators develop a sudden case of the vapors and hope to land on a couch when they faint.

Spare me.

Up to now, it has (forgive me) been mostly pundits and politicians from the rather far-right-wing end of the political spectrum, which seems to be where the Republican Party now resides on most issues, who have been perpetuating these attitudes toward women. But now? Behold! A consultant from the left side of the aisle who has hopped over the fence, effectively saying, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – at least join ’em in saying things that are somehow politically smart. “You have to go with the flow,” he sagely declared.

Well, they may be considered politically smart, but they ain’t smart. To me, they don’t make this consultant, or any of the rest of the Republican talkers, sound smart – or sound like they’re aware at all of American history. You all do know that the the women’s suffrage movement was successful, yes?

Are we sure this is 2012? The, you know, twenty-first century?

Perhaps I’m reacting this way because I know plenty of women who are smart, wise, brave, strong … sometimes stronger than the men around them (including me) … and many of them are people whom I would characterize as tougher than me by a country mile. My mother, for openers. My sister, to continue that list. I can think of three friends right off the top of my head whose doctorates are earned (mine is just a nickname, I’m afraid). And there are more; and they know who they are (and some of them actually read this space!).

But even if I hadn’t been privileged to call those particular people friends and colleagues for many years … women, ALL women, are human beings. They don’t deserve abuse just because they’re women, and they don’t deserve to – maddeningly – be subjected to the ignorance that is chucked at them like a javelin, seemingly more and more frequently as days pass. Finally, at long last, somehow, can we please find it in us to go check out the Golden Rule again?


September 14, 2012 - Posted by | celebrity, Famous Persons, government, media, news, npr, politics, radio, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Way to go, Rob!

    Comment by joe mccoy | September 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. Don’t get mad; get even! Vote for Elizabeth Warren!! (Does she drive a truck, too?)

    Comment by Kristin | October 20, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] I have used this space, many and oft, to note the ridiculous behavior of public figures when it comes to treatment of women. (Here, here, here, and here.) […]

    Pingback by The Most Recent Last Straw -or- How Did We Get Here? « Editorial License | October 7, 2016 | Reply

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