As the blogosphere proclaims Governor Romney the winner of the first debate, I believe that he actually lost stature and huge points with women -- and the already considerable gender gap will widen even more. Romney's masculine skills were on full display, but his feminine skills were sorely lacking.
The pundits loudly credit Romney for his combative style, his aggressive, in-your-face energy and his hyper-attack mode. They applaud these debate tactics as if this was not a presidential debate, but a bloody prizefight. In fact, the September issue of The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story, "Slugfest: Obama vs. Romney." On the cover, Romney and Obama jab in prizefighter gear: Slugging it out, sweat flying, Romney lands a knockout punch to President Obama's jaw. Is this what our uncivil union has come to -- a prizefight?
This prizefight metaphor was also much in display in the pre-debate coverage. As I switched between MSNBC, CNN and FOX, the debate was framed as two candidates stepping into the Big Ring for a political brawl. And when it was over, the pundits, mostly white males, proclaimed Romney's "big win." But there is always a her-story behind the his-story. And this was evident in the feminine response.
The women I spoke with who watched the debate were dismayed by Romney's rude interruptions, his high-handed dismissal of the venerable PBS moderator, Jim Lehrer, his turning away from the audience -- who should be his primary focus -- to fix his feisty attention all on President Obama. While Obama calmly addressed the audience and moderator and the world audience, Romney was riveted on Obama as if he were the only person in the room. This is the way a predator focuses on prey. It's not the behavior of someone seeking to serve and heal a country divided. This was a sports event, not an exchange of ideas affecting us all deeply.
Romney's fervent goal of seizing the presidency was evident in his body language, his snobbish smirks, his false sympathy for those of us "crushed" in the middle class -- those 47 percent he so contemptuously dismissed when he was among his rich cronies. Romney's combative dogfight stance may impress men or those who have held power so long they assume it belongs to them. But women, or anyone who has been in an underclass or faced racism, read this behavior as arrogant and overly aggressive -- the language and habit of dominance.
We've had bosses, fathers, boyfriends and co-workers like Romney who invade our space, try to dominate every discussion and see every encounter as a chance to "win," rather than dialogue. It's the old patriarchal model that women have endured for way too long. And we can end its reign. How many women would choose to go to a prizefight over a community meeting to solve real, difficult issues that affect our lives? How many women prefer a president who is considerate, calm and thoughtful as opposed to an aggressor who is intent on seizing the prize-- whether that's a person or a country?
Romney's pugilism may play well to pundits' ringside. But many women are weary of angry, entitled white men controlling our bodies and our workplaces. The prizefight is not our focus. Our future is. We can choose to continue supporting a president who was raised by a strong, thoughtful mother. She taught him to listen, to dialogue, to be gracious and always consider the people he serves. Romney is perfect as a corporate raider and billionaire. For that he needs to be fighting for a prize, to be relentless, pushy, compassionless and feverishly ambitious to get to the top. To qualify for a job as the leader of this country, he must learn to listen, to share his wealth, to practice diplomacy and most of all to be steady and calm when making world-altering decisions. Pugnacious pugilist? Yes. But Presidential? No.
We already have a president who has distinguished himself by using both his masculine strengths -- respected Commander-in-chief, firm foreign policy, steadily dismantling of Al Qaeda and finally killing bin Laden -- and his feminine skills -- diplomacy, cooperation, seeking equal footing and health care for all, especially our children.
As we look toward the next debates we can ask for more than a prizefight. We need respectful debates of ideas. Remember, the definitions of "debate" according to dictionary.com includes:
3. deliberation, consideration
4. archaic. Strife; contention
In the first debate, we've chosen to applaud the patriarchal, old-style, "archaic strife and contention." That prizefight is over. Now can we please focus on the "deliberation and consideration?" Because our country doesn't need a prizefighter. We need a president. And we all win with a civil discourse, a civil union.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 17 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" and I Want to Be Left Behind, which was named as a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year" by The Christian Science Monitor. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Utne Reader, and Oprah Magazine. Her new book is The Drowning World. For more: www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com
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