About two weeks ago, following June 8 primary night, the big meme in political media was “The Year of the (Republican) Woman.” Primary victories by the likes of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, and a strong performance by Nikki Haley in South Carolina, followed on the back of victory the week prior by Susana Martinez in New Mexico.
But since then, another narrative seems to be taking hold in some quarters—that these women aren’t really women, they’re men in skirts. That is so because they a) didn’t emphasize their gender at every turn in the course of their respective primary races or b) don’t focus, or toe the line, on “women’s issues”—or both. In particular, objections have been raised that these women either are not pro-choice or are insufficiently vocal about being pro-choice, and therefore—the subtext seems to be—they’re more akin to men in skirts than “real women.”
It’s a sort of modern, through-the-looking-glass version of the critique leveled by a few on the distinct, definite right wing of American politics regarding Hillary Clinton back in the day: She wears pantsuits, therefore she’s not a “real woman.” The argument went then, real women wear skirts, and the items at the top of their priorities list are kids, husband, and housework, not kids, husband, and career. It continued: Have a career and want to pursue it, even if it means making some sacrifices like not being a stay-at-home-mom? Pro-choice? You’re a feminazi who is destroying America—and you certainly shouldn’t be elected to high office, where you might serve as a role model.
The 2010 version, as I’ve heard it expressed and as seems to be implied in some stories discussing this new “Year of the Woman” from some on the distinct, definite left wing of American politics goes like this: Real women prioritize advocacy surrounding “women’s issues” and their careers, not advocacy on the issues that matter most to them personally and their careers—let alone their kids or their husbands. Pro-life (or not vocally pro-choice)? You’re a 1950s throwback who should never be allowed into a position where young women might listen to you or look up to you.
The upshot then, and now, seems to be that for a chunk of the population, left and right, women have to conform to some kind of stereotype in order to be worthy of respect as women, and worthy of consideration for political leadership roles—whereas men can just be men. This is the ultimate in ironies since we are no longer stuck in the 1950’s. One is not some sort of misfit outcast if one wants to have a high-powered career in business rather than staying at home to cook and clean and change diapers. Equally, one is not some sort of un-liberated, subservient throwback to the middle of the last century if one does want to stay at home to look after one’s kids, and make sure the husband doesn’t eat Cheetos and Lucky Charms for dinner every night (most of us know how that goes). There are many measures of women having achieved equality, but the best one is that we choose to do different things according to what we want, not what either the bra-burners of the 1970’s or those advocating a Stepford Wives-type world want. We choose.
And, increasingly, it seems, we dominate. In the July/August edition of The Atlantic, there is a piece running entitled “The End of Men.” It details the extent to which women, and girls, are matching and often outpacing men, and boys, in pretty much everything:
Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs.
Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast.
Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life.
Women do get married, we do have kids. But younger women no longer expect that if we do these things, we will be the stay-at-home partner, or the little woman. Setting aside what The Atlantic piece details, anecdotal evidence suggests that for a lot of women, househusbands and stay-at-home-Dads are the new black. Flex-time, now more available than ever, is another rather common method by which more women are managing to “have it all.”
This has some important political implications, in my view. First, it explains some differences that I observe between younger women in my general age bracket (25-35) and those in our mothers' generation (55-65). The latter grew up and spent the first part of their adulthood in a time when to the extent one accepts that women had equal rights, they were not typically treated in a manner equal to men. Male dominance was the rule, and sexism with terribly negative consequences for many of these women who sought to build careers and do the things their husbands and brothers were doing was more prevalent. Their political focus was, understandably, on what we think of as “women’s issues”: non-discrimination legislation and equal pay; the Equal Rights Amendment; aspects of family law like divorce, alimony, child support; and yes, perhaps above all else, abortion.
That is not to suggest that women in my generation are not concerned about all or some of these things; some of us are, but often in a different context. For example, when I think about discrimination, I think about it by reference to my gay friends, not myself (I have a good job, I’m happy with what I earn, I’m confident that I’m not earning less than men in my position, and no one stops me from achieving all that I can, at all, but certainly not because I have boobs). I am technically pro-choice (very moderately so), but I also don’t believe that further limiting abortion (which I see as tragically overused) will result in women being reduced to second-class-citizen/virtual serf status.
A lot of women I know who are of the same age as me take an attitude best described as “meh” about political arguments centering on the need to preserve abortion rights as liberally (no pun intended) as possible. Whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life, it’s not what they vote on (in fact, with a lot of us seeing starting and maintaining our own business as the ideal, setting aside continued high unemployment, economic issues right now are paramount).
But more importantly, society is just different from when Roe v Wade was handed down, and so a lot of these women see the whole issue differently. Having a baby does not necessarily or even probably mean having to quit your job, stay at home, or be poor. It may mean you need to get creative, but women in our generation are already doing that—we work from home, we work flex-time, we’re our own bosses, we have a househusband, or we can afford a nanny. A lot of us see instances where abortion can be a tolerable, but always a deeply tragic, step—but we also see those instances as very much a minority of cases identified by, say, the hardcore feminists of our mothers’ generation, and are confident in our ability to prevent unplanned pregnancies, full stop.
Equally, though, we don’t all see it as a failure if we do or take interest in things considered more “traditional,” family-focused or surrounding the home. When I quit my job as a lawyer in 2005, I decided to learn to cook. Not only do I enjoy cooking (now that I can), but I enjoy cooking for my husband several nights a week—I relax, we eat better, and everyone is a little happier. I don’t believe I’m any less of a “real woman” for having a career, or for liking to make him apple pie or cheesecake. I don’t believe I’m a man in a skirt because I don’t agree with the National Organization for Women on everything, or because I am not a 21st century Stepford Wife.
Neither are Republican women like Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman. They are all women who have accomplished great things in their careers—things that fifty years ago, would have been reserved for men. They are all wives and mothers (or step-mothers) who, pictures suggest, love spending time with their families and doing things that make them happy, in addition to putting in the long hours required to run for high political office and stand a chance of winning.
But they are different from a lot of what we have seen in American politics to date, because of their biographies, because of the issues they consider the biggest priorities, and because they don’t rigidly adhere to the same stances most female politicians we are familiar with have held, to-date. They should force us all to think about how we define women, and women’s issues, moving forward.
We may not dispense with the “men in pants” critique once and for all this year, but we may get close. In my view, that will represent real progress for women, no matter what we do in life, or where we are on the issues.
Liz Mair is Vice President of Hynes Communications and the former Online Communications Director for the Republican National Committee. She consults for ex-Hewlett-Packard CEOand US Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, as well as trade associations and Fortune 500 clients. The opinions expressed are her own and not those of her clients.
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