Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.24.12

Why Does Everyone Hate Women?

Female political professionals and pundits have more outrage directed at them than their male counterparts. But why?

Amanda Marcotte says Stephanie Cutter is getting an unusual amount of flak for a presidential spokesman, and chalks it up to sexism.  Republicans, she warns, will hurt themselves with women voters if they keep this up:  

Limbaugh tends to be the blunt instrument of the right, but as Seitz-Wald goes on to demonstrate, other conservative hacks press the same buttons in a slightly more subtle manner, simply by paying more attention to Cutter than her rank on Obama's staff really justifies. Sean Hannity has been harping on Cutter for months, and ran a full segment on her recently, giving Cutter an implausible amount of credit for controlling the Obama campaign, characterizing her as, "the one person that can be credited for driving the hateful tone that has been spewing from team Obama."

If conservative pundits don't cut it out, they'll soon find out that the era when pretty unmarried women were considered "girls"—expected to be quiet and let the adults do the talking—is waning rapidly. Over time, people are going to start noticing the correlation between the amount of hate aimed at a woman and her single, attractive status, and begin to piece it together. They may even start to notice the correlation between these misogynist feeding frenzies and support for anti-women policies, from restricting abortion rights to opposing equal pay legislation to watering down domestic violence protections. Considering how much of conservative politics is about establishing plausible deniability of prejudice, inviting the public to make these associations could be a serious problem, if it isn't already.  

As it happens, I agree that Stephanie Cutter gets singled out because she's a reasonably attractive woman, and the cause is sexism.  But not special Republican sexism.  I suppose it's only natural that liberal woman commentators who become the subject of vitriolic attacks from men--attacks that highlight their appearance, marital status, and presumptive stupidity--would assume that this happens because conservatives are sexist.  But the sad fact is that conservative and libertarians get this stuff too.  

Yes, you heard me right: self described progressive men go out of their way to write me notes in which they sound like sexist jerks.  They deploy words that I won't repeat, because this is a family blog, but which center around my reproductive parts, and what I might or might not be doing with them.  If I have written something nice about a conservative man they dislike, they'll ask me how it felt to have him come on my face.  They tell me that I really ought to have kids, because that'll learn me about the folly of my political views.  They not-so-subtly imply that I have gotten my job by sleeping with my bosses, or friends of my bosses, or hell, the entire Washington DC phone book.  

Then there's the more garden variety guy stuff, like "mansplaining" a subject upon which I have done extensive reporting, even though the sum of their own knowledge on the topic consists of a 250 word blog-post they read.  Not infrequently, when their encyclopedic lack of knowledge is gently pointed out, they go for the reproductive jugular.  Or they disappear.  So far, not one of them has simply said, "Oh, wow, I guess my operating assumption that you spent eight weeks reporting a feature without learning anything at all about the topic was the kind of tacit sexism that we progressives are trying to fight!"  

And don't forget the women!  I'm (painfully) reminded of the progressive woman who wrote a long and spiteful note, the upshot of which was that since my husband is younger than me, he'd probably eventually leave me for a younger woman.  She detailed the extensive mental suffering that she hoped this would engender--though of course, only because she hoped it would make me a better person, and open my eyes to the terrible error of my political views.  It was the sort of speech I would only have previously imagined finding in a particularly lazy bodice-ripper, issuing to a younger married woman from the razor thin lips of an embittered spinster with a bible clutched to the sunken hollow of her chest.  But I assume its author would have been drummed right out of the Realist Fiction Writers League.

Even feminist writers seem to react somewhat more harshly to women who disagree with them than to men. The men are sexist doofs.  The women are traitors with terrible motives and worse morals. 

Since I'm a soft-libertarian squish, the beauty is that I get these things from both sides--many more from progressives, to be sure, but enough from the other side to know that it's very much a bipartisan vice.  And I'm hardly alone; name any female op-ed writer or politician, and I guarantee she gets the kind of criticism that will make your eyes bleed.  And that's just the overt stuff.  The covert stuff is probably more harmful to society.  

OF course, as a woman who gets a fair amount of criticism, I would say that, wouldn't I?  So let's stipulate that my critics are completely gender blind, reacting only to my many faults.  That still leaves all those other women getting the full court press--hell, getting sacked--every time they open their mouths.  

(I know, I know: just another woman who knows nothing about sports.  Sigh.)

It seems to be some sort of universal that women who make forceful political arguments garner a particular sort of vitriolic reaction.    150 years since the feminist movement really got going, it's still the case that women doing "male things" get seen very differently from men--and not just by men, but also by women, as studies have repeatedly shown.  Men who take charge in a business situation are forceful and competent; men who argue passionately for their political views are warriors.  Women who do the same thing are . . . well, a word that I try not to use, whether or not I'm writing for a family blog.  

A former chess player once told me that when a male chess player lost to a woman, the first thing he would often do was declare that she was a lesbian.  There are some arenas where women simply aren't supposed to go out there and win.  If she does, she must be betraying her sex--so how dare she wear short skirts and high boots?

Women are allowed to succeed because they worked really hard (I've spent ten years doing research and the result is X . . . ).  

We are comfortable when they act as our moral conscience (We are not thinking enough about the poor/unborn babies!)  

But we get very uncomfortable when they contest men on skill: when they are arguing, in essence, "I'm smarter than you" or "I've thought this through better" or "My ideas are more compelling" or just "I'm in charge, and we're going to do it my way".  It's not just that the women may be wrong--50% of the time, they probably are.  There's a real anger that the women are daring to put themselves out there, to declaim in a space where they have no right to be.

Politics seems to me to be very definitely one of those arenas.  When Stephanie Cutter does her job right, she wins the news cycle--and the people who have lost take a double blow.  They were beaten, and they were beaten by a woman.   It's galling.  

Which is why Rush Limbaugh garners outrage and fear, while Michelle Malkin garners a sort of hysterical contempt, incredulity mixed with horror mixed with "How dare that uppity [expletive deleted] state her stupid opinions!"  And why the reaction to both Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin was somewhat out of proportion to their actual faults.  

The worst part is that no one can see themselves doing it.  It seems to me objectively true that female commentators and political operatives on both sides of the aisle get disproportionate censure--and moreover, that there is a distinctly sexist undertone to a lot of the criticism.  (More than one guy has told me that he couldn't stand Hilary Clinton because she reminded him of his mother.  These are academics and top professionals with impeccable cosmopolitan credentials, not members of the Quiverfull movement).

One way I know I'm right is that everyone else can see it--when they're talking about the folks on their side.   But if you asked all the people from the other side who are swarming these women, not one in a million would agree that it had anything to do with the target's gender.   After all, they support plenty of women on their own side, don't they?  

But that's a bit like arguing that you support free speech . . . except for, y'know, fringe, offensive views.  It's easy to protect speech that no one wants to ban, and it's easy to support people who agree with us.  It's in disagreement that the knives come out--particularly when we're losing.  I'm sure that chess players didn't spend much time discussing the sexual preferences of the women who did what they were supposed to, and lost in the first round.  

To put it in slightly fancier terms, sexism is most likely to manifest when women are challenging your position in the dominance hierarchy. A woman who agrees with you isn't challenging your position; she's reinforcing it (we're on top!).  A woman on the other side who's winning is threatening to bump you down a notch.  So it's time for the gorilla roar to let her know who's boss.  And of course, the spiteful denigration of her attractiveness and reproductive chances, to let her know that if she doesn't get back in line, she'll end up old and alone and abandoned.

Given how deep-seated all this is, I'm not sure that I have a solution.  But I'm pretty sure that if there is one, it will start with recognizing that this is something everyone does, not just those amoral cretins on the other side.