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Christine Quinn and Gender Politics

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In the aftermath of Christine Quinn's resounding defeat in New York City's Democratic primary Tuesday (normally, winning is tantamount to victory in the general election), there is just one thing I want to say:

I am willing to bet you $10,000 dollars that tonight, Charlie Rose will convene an all- or predominantly male panel which will conclude that sexism had nothing to do with Quinn's loss. Everyone will congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness.

I will not be on that panel. And if I were, I would be disinclined to go along with the majority. There are probably any number of reasons for Quinn's poor showing, but sexism (or, to call it by its rightful name, misogyny) was certainly a major one.

I say so based on the interesting article in yesterday's New York Times, in which the authors report that "not one person blamed her loss wholly, or even mostly, on gender."

Fair enough, but the authors also comment that voters unfavorable to Quinn use language like the following to describe her: "ambitious," "petty," "mean," "bossy," "self-interested," "defensive," "combative" and "argumentative."

From my perspective 3,000 miles from the fray, the descriptions appear to be organized into three piles: those that might be true, might be fair and might be applied to a candidate of either gender ("petty" and "mean"); those that might be true of both male and female candidates, but which are much more likely to be mentioned unfavorably of women ("combative" and "defensive"); and those that only make sense if applied to a woman ("ambitious," "bossy," "self-interested" and "argumentative.")

The last set are really rather bizarre, though they are certainly not new in this context (many of the same were trundled out about Hillary Clinton in 2008). Would anyone run for high political office (or for that matter, any political office) if they were not "ambitious"? In fact, a (male) candidate who appeared too self-effacing would be accused of having "no fire in the belly," and that might well doom his candidacy.

Likewise, only women (and little girls) are ever described as "bossy" -- most often by other females, as is true of most of the adjectives cited above. Men are "authoritative"; women are "bossy." The first is normally positive; the second never is. Both describe the same kinds of behavior, the kinds that candidates and office-holders need to succeed. Likewise, candidates for office need to be "self-centered," but because the trait is so normal and unmarked, it is seldom commented on. And a candidate who is unable to be "argumentative" cannot succeed in the rough-and-tumble of contemporary American electoral politics, much less once elected and subjected to the 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week media torture that officeholders must endure. If you can't engage in the verbal tussle, if you can't dish it out as well as take it, you'd better stay home, and everyone knows it. But only for a female candidate is this perceived as a negative -- although its absence would be equally perceived as a lack of assertiveness, an inability to play the game, an unfitness for office. As I wrote a millennium or so ago, a woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't -- the classic Batesonian double bind. It is hard to imagine how a woman should speak if she wants to be a public person.

What's that? Oh. Right. A woman should not want to be a public person. In Spanish, after all, mujer pública is a euphemism for "prostitute." We Americans are perhaps just a little more subtle in our prejudices.

Her voice is described as "grating" -- a close synonym of "shrill" and "strident," both almost exclusively used of women in public discourse, and both now recognized as problematic -- so it has been necessary to seek out the euphemistic synonym. But again, it is almost unheard of for male candidates' voices to be scrutinized. Michael Bloomberg, for instance, is no nightingale. In fact, New Yorkers like their public figures to be feisty and tough, and a quality that could be described as "grating" is probably the most recognizable feature of the New York accent.

But the concern over Quinn's vocal quality is itself peculiar. Note that people are not paying attention to what Quinn says (her ideas), but only how she talks about them (she is "grating"; she is "combative"). What this means is that there is an assumption, unvoiced, by the electorate that she (alone among the candidates) must not have anything interesting to say; all that is interesting is how she says whatever she says -- the externals.

It is a way of denying that women can and should be taken seriously. They begin to take on the role of department-store window mannequin, of interest only in terms of what is on her, not in her.

As someone who has done a fair amount of public speaking, I got a lot of this: people coming up after a talk less interested in what I had been saying than in what I was wearing ("What's that made of? Oh, wool,"), or what hand I was using to gesture with. You get a strong sense that no one is listening to you, because you have nothing to say.

A lot of blatant sexism showed up this way. Quinn was repeatedly described by both men and women as "fat" and "ugly." Someone remarked that her red hair "made her look like a clown." Fashionable wealthy ladies wondered why she wasn't wearing size 2 designer suits.

One man remarked that he disliked her because she seemed "too masculine, I guess, not enough feminine." But if she presented herself as conventionally "feminine," she would be assessed as fuzzy-minded and weak.

None of this is new, but all is discouraging. One might have hoped that, after the appalling misogyny of the 2008 Democratic primary season, New Yorkers might have learned to avoid those prejudices. One might have hoped that, just as "nice" white people hide their racism, nice men and women might hide their sexism as something embarrassing. It would at least be a move in the right direction, sort of. But misogyny is clearly alive and well in New York in 2013, and if it is alive and well in New York in 2013, I am not feeling overly hopeful about Hillary's chances nationally in 2016. Something has to change, and soon.

(Oh, and btw: "I am willing to bet you" does not constitute a felicitous bet.")