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Being Gracious in a Sexist World

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I didn't know it would feel this bad. I didn't know it would feel this personal. I'm all for a united Democratic party. But losing my last chance to see a woman in the White House feels like shit. And the gloating by the press is even worse. It sounds like "I told you so." It feels like watching Joan of Arc burned at the stake. You can smell the burning flesh. And then all the crowing about breaking the race barrier -- which we haven't done yet.

A primary is not a general election. The people who vote in primaries are more sophisticated than the general run of voters. I hope Obama will be our next president. But I can't watch his triumph without a fearful foreboding. He is not the first charismatic leader we've produced and he won't be the last. But our country is very good at taking down the best and the brightest. Those of us who lived through the unspeakable violence of the sixties can attest to that.

I want to be wrong about violence. I hate the role of Cassandra. I want to believe that America has moved beyond violence and racism and maybe we have. But I thought we had moved beyond sexism, and this campaign proved me wrong. The petty woman-hating jibes, the ageism, and the physical mockery have not been easy to watch. The only good thing about the defeat of Hillary Clinton may be a resurgence of feminism, an understanding that we haven't yet killed misogyny and that we have work to do.

"It's not sexism -- it's her" seems to have replaced, "I'm not a feminist, but" in our national lexicon. This is not to imply that Hillary Clinton is faultless -- far from it. But it's clear that the faults we tolerate and even overlook in men, we see as glaring in women. The problem with sexism is that it's so damned invisible. McCain can confuse Sunnis and Shiites and nobody blinks. Bush can admit to his press secretary that he outed a secret agent while claiming that he'd fire any aide who did so -- and the press sleeps. Men make mistakes. Women are not allowed to. We are held to such high and impossible standards that the possibility of any woman penetrating the barrier again seems remote.

My best friend tells me that Hillary should have been gracious last night. Barack Obama was gracious. But isn't gratitude the prerogative of the winner? Will women ever be winners? And if so, when?

Sexism is hard to see because most of it is so petty we don't want to mention it. Nutcracker thighs? A novelty like that seems beneath contempt. But it isn't one small offense that does women in -- it's the steady accretion of many offenses. It's death by a thousand cuts.
Even mentioning the problem seems ungracious. As women, we're supposed to specialize in graciousness. And there isn't a gracious way to talk about sexism. Perhaps there is no way to talk about sexism at all -- which is the way sexists want it.

I will work my tail off for President Obama. We need a Democratic in the White House more than ever. But I can't help feeling that we've buried a topic that needs unearthing. Please, Mr. Obama, turn your attention to sexism and tell us how you plan to address it. Then we can all be gracious with a good conscience.

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