Recent Posts

Paternalistic Sexism and Women Getting Elected

by Dan Burns on March 13, 2012

I’m male.  Moreover, I was raised in a 1960s-70s small-town Midwestern culture, where traditional “maleness” was provided ample emphasis, to say the least. Thankfully, I seem to have got past that, at least to the point where I rarely find myself feeling unsure or self-conscious when writing about “women’s issues” (that is, everybody’s issues, but “women’s issues” remains the popular standard, for lack of a better one, I suppose), from a progressive standpoint. I’ve encountered an exception to that relative self-assurance, though, when it comes to the insidious form of sexism generally referenced as “paternalism.” The facet of it that I’m looking to discuss here, is the notion, whether explicit or largely unconscious, that women need to be protected from certain grubby realities, not because they can’t handle them, but because they’re really “above” them.  The specific “grubby reality” that I’m referencing, is competing for political office.

What got me thinking about all this, is this report (PDF), “Men Rule:  The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics,” which is briefly summarized in another article, here.  These articles are not paternalistic; certain elements of what the study concluded, though, are suggestive.

1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

More below the fold.
Women’s would-be protectors are, of course, everywhere.

Not being knowledgeable, regarding current feminist takes on the topic, I did some searching.  This item is heavy, academic stuff, but well worth plowing through if you’re motivated.

This patriarchal framework, or paternalistic foundation of belief, is a form of sexism that is imposed upon women through system justification. While the system justification motive is a general motive, its potency varies between individuals and situations. The system justification theory explains that it is possible for both members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups to be motivated to defend the status quo because of a motivation “to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate”

And this is in more of a shoot-from-the-hip style.

I suppose it’s a useful explanation for why I disagree so strongly with folks like Douthat on pretty much everything. He thinks he knows better, is better than other people, and that policies should be imposed to protect them from themselves. He’d like to see government as the benevolent father teaching its kids right and wrong (yeah you can see how religious ideology falls into political views so easily here). I’d like to see government provide for the welfare of its people – you know, make sure we don’t go hungry or homeless – not keep us from getting laid.

Of course it’s also plenty of sexism – we’re talking about the “daughter test” not the “son test” – because daughters are to be protected, sons raised to be strong and kill the dinner themselves. Sorry, hard not to fall into some old school “state of nature” hyperbole in such an absurd theory conversation. And of course we focus on shielding lady persons from the specters of sex work and drug use.

Getting back to the issue of why more women don’t run for office, I’m not so sure that it’s a gender thing, in the way that it’s often presented as being. That is, I think the issue might have more to do with something like “Why don’t more intelligent, knowledgeable, humane people in general, committed to working on behalf of everybody rather than just for themselves and those that bribe them, run for office?”

Contrary to what we were fed in junior high civics class, the U.S. Congress (I’ll use that as a convenient and well-known example) has never been a bastion of the noble and brilliant.  Ever hear of Theodore Bilbo, or Wilbur Mills? Moreover, the general quality of its members has clearly worsened, with the political ascent of modern conservatism, beginning in the late 1970s.  And who particularly wants to be part of all that?

(There’s a story, and apparently it’s a true one, that a female African-American legislator was once riding in an elevator in the Capitol building with the late Jesse Helms.  Helms, ostensibly carelessly but in reality clearly with the intent to offend, even intimidate, began whistling “Dixie.”  If you ask me, she should have hauled off and kicked him, square, in the n**ts.  But I suppose that that wouldn’t have been quite the thing.)

What I’m getting at, is that I don’t necessarily buy that motivated women are somehow discouraged from running for office primarily by issues related to sexism, paternalistic or otherwise, even though those issues remain pervasive in our society in general.  Plenty of countries that are more overtly sexist, at least on the surface, than the U.S., have higher rates of women being elected.  (See page 3 of this study (PDF); it’s a few years old, but nothing’s much different.)  I think that the real keys have to do with how corrupted, in terms of money, corporate power, and flagrant gerrymandering, the U.S. system has become.

In the matter of reforming all that, my idea – a ban on Caucasian, heterosexual men, or proxies thereof, holding any elective office, for at least the next fifty years – is unlikely to fly.  I do think that matters will gradually improve, in the likely event that current trends hold and the U.S. electorate continues to drift leftward.  But I am bereft of workable ideas for quick fixes.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: