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11.19.08

The Sexism Revival

The treatment of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin exposes a streak of misogyny that runs deep in American culture.

Now that the election is over and racism is ostensibly down for the count, has sexism gotten a new dispensation? Has the "unlikability" (not to mention "unfuckability") of Hillary not only cost her the presidential nomination but brought out the streak of misogyny that runs deep in American culture, affecting the way men think about women and the way women think about themselves?

And what about Sarah Palin, the breeding babe who has emerged as a comely figure of fun with seemingly not a mote of self-doubt in her constitution? Has she furthered men's natural instinct to write off women as light entertainment, chattering nitwits with a shaky hold on the hard facts, and also triggered the self-hatred mechanism in the women who refused to go along with her as a "you can have it all" representation of how far feminism had come? (Legs! Clothes! Family! Career!)

Once again, it seems to be OK to talk about women as risible in their aspirations to leadership.

These are some of the questions that swirled through my head as I stood in the bar of a private club renowned for the eminence of its membership two nights after Obama had swept the elections. The occasion was the club's monthly dinner, and the bar was fitted out mostly with men in tuxes, except for several women in suitably festive garb. (The institution, like many such, had originally been a men's-only affair and still retains much of its Old World, Masters of the Universe tone despite the fact that it started admitting women in 1989.)

As I chatted with a small all-male group, one of them inquired after an absent woman's physical appearance as though he were in a locker room and another sheepishly asserted that he found Palin deeply attractive, as though this were a disclosure unworthy of him—or, perhaps, of the club's standards of political correctitude. (Feeling it incumbent upon myself to reassure him, in classic feminine fashion, I chimed in: "I find her attractive myself.")

Minutes later a woman mouthed hello to me over the heads of this boyish bunch and the short, bald man who had been dominating the conversation snapped at her: "Let me finish my story!" By the time I bid goodnight, the evening's patronizing atmosphere left me feeling as though I had stepped out of line without saying much of anything and should take my rightful place in hobble skirts in the back parlor with the rest of the weaker sex.

These snatches of conversation might not ordinarily have struck me as evidence of a sea change, a shift in the way that women are perceived, if it were not for the fact that Hillary Clinton had recently been demoted from presidential contender to possible secretary of state—a move that once again positions her as ready and willing to serve rather than to command—while Sarah Palin continues to brand herself on the talk show circuit with the same astonishing bravura she exhibited as a wild-card vice presidential nominee. Under these circumstances, it was hard to bat away the feeling that keeps tugging at the back of my mind, which is that although change may well be coming to Washington, the public discourse about women has taken several steps backward. ( A poll conducted this week by The Daily Beast confirms these suspicions.)

The evidence may be difficult to pin down, but it hovers in the atmosphere, making this reversion felt in myriad ways. Once again, for instance, it seems to be OK to talk about women as risible in their aspirations to leadership; OK, too, for men openly to dismiss women as social and intellectual equals, the better to focus on how they rate in the all-important looks department. For a time, the feminist movement forced this chauvinist mind-set to go underground, but now women-bashing seems to be back in style. (And is it only me, or is there something about women's attitude to other women, especially those in the limelight, that seems to suggest that centuries of disenfranchisement has produced the Stockholm Syndrome rather than Steadfast Sisterhood?)

Of course, any vaginal-American running for high office is instantly consigned to the scrutiny of the reductionist male gaze and the hypercritical female one. Hillary's cankles were as closely analyzed as her competence, just as Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the most powerful woman in government, is more famous for her pearls than her policies. What Clinton failed to realize is that when it comes to female candidates, accomplishment is a sideline; Americans, both men and women, want gossip. Can she really believe we're more intrigued by what bills she's helped pass than her relationship with Bill? Small wonder the woman lost.

Strong women have always threatened men and will continue to do so as long as women remain the primary caretakers of young children, the front-line enforcers of society's inhibiting agenda. What seems newly in evidence is how resistant women are, consciously or not, to putting one of their own in power. It was, after all, a woman who asked John McCain at a November campaign meeting the question that launched almost a million You Tube hits: "How do we beat the bitch?" Young women today appear less concerned about the limitations imposed on them with good reason; they can indeed become lawyers and doctors with greater ease than would have been imaginable in the 1950s. The attitude seems to be that as feminist goals have gotten closer—no matter that women are still routinely paid less for their labor—there's no need for the strident rhetoric or far-reaching vision of the women's movement.

But here's something to give pause: The special election issue of The New Yorker has five male writers commenting on its implications; there is only one woman featured in the issue (although she has two pieces, as if in compensation). Similarly, the November issues of Harper's and The Atlantic are top-heavy with male writers, notwithstanding the fact that The Atlantic cover touts a story headlined "Should Women Rule the World?" which turns out to be a rather cutesy review of a book by DeeDee Myers with that title, not a serious consideration of the question at all.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of OK! magazine promised to tell readers about Michelle Obama's style ("Michelle looks amazing in yellow") and "her date nights with Barack." You know, girly stuff, as befits our interest in a Grownup Girl. Can it be that Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer and wit, was not all that far from contemporary truth when he observed that when it came to women it was best to keep one's expectations low: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

If we keep our expectations low enough, the surprise is not that Hillary Clinton didn't become our first woman president but that she made such a strong showing in the primaries. A round of applause for the lady walking on her hind legs.

Daphne Merkin is a cultural critic who has made a name for herself with her often unnerving candor and elegantly High/Low reflections. She was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle. Her work appears regularly in Slate, Travel & Leisure, and Book Forum, among other publications. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.