Many Men Still Fear Women With Public Power

06/04/2015 04:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

If we learned that racism was not over with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, we will learn that sexism is surely not over with the possible election of the first woman as president of the United States.

Political commentators have noted that Republican candidate Carly Fiorina can go after Hillary in a way that the male candidates cannot. There are still vestiges of an ethic of men not beating up on a woman, even though they do it all the time; it's simply called "domestic" not public abuse. There's something about watching a woman going after a woman. "Let's watch a cat fight," people say.

Quite frankly, there has always been something to be gained in a male-dominated world by keeping women divided against women. Old/young; married/single; lesbian/straight; fat/thin; pretty/ugly; working/non-working--whatever that means; all women work. Women candidates, such as Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, for example, will present a sharp contrast in policy, principles and personal leadership style, but we need to be watchful that they are not pitted against one another "to see women fight."

Women taking their full place in public life is an unfinished revolution. We have celebrated women's accomplishments. And yet, as with any great social change, remnants of longing for the past linger. Fear of loss of male power and domination remain in some quarters. One sees and hears it, in blatant statements or small, off-hand remarks. Recently while traveling, my husband and I stopped at a convenience store. At the counter a stranger remarked to us about his wife standing beside him, "She always gets what she wants." Why did he feel he needed to say that to us? There's something there, unfinished, for him, and for thousands of other men, who cannot rejoice, even years after the modern feminist movement began. It's reminiscent of a question we early feminists often heard, "What else do they want?"

The issue is still about power -- and elusive partnership. Another man said to me last week in speaking about Hillary Clinton, "How old is she? She probably won't have the energy to serve a full term." Not enough power! While others have long said Hillary has too much power. There's always something wrong with a "public woman." Too weak. Too strong. Too quiet. Too loud. Too . . . I even heard a committee interviewing a candidate for a leadership position say that she was "Too happy." To find something wrong with every woman indicates a continuing deep reluctance to trust women in leadership for fear they will change everything and usurp power from men.

Of all the women with whom I have worked in the past five decades, willing and able to serve as leaders in the public sphere, not a one of them has had as her goal taking away power from men. Each of them has wanted and worked towards the full partnership of women and men. And we have achieved amazing new models of women and men working together as true partners in so many fields. The feminist revolution has been a revolution for men, too. The transformation of society has meant a transformation of power itself.

And yet. . . And yet, systemic sexism remains. The barriers may be different today than in the 1950's and 1960's, sometimes more subtle, sometime just differently blatant. How important for women and men to recognize them.

In regard to the resurgence of racism, we say, "We need to start a conversation." Not only a conversation, but a listening to the deep fears that remain, and a determination to eradicate racial violence. During this presidential election campaign we will see a re-emergence of systemic sexism, sexism that may have only gone partially underground. (I totally dislike the term, "being politically correct," a sure sign that someone has not been transformed, but only feels they must pretend to be.) Rape continues. Sexual discrimination continues. Fear of women fully using their gifts continues. We have work to do. Together.