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You've Got a Long Way to Go, Baby

Has this 2010 US campaign season turned into a referendum on women?

Do you ever ask yourself, “Is it me, or [fill in the blank]?” I find myself asking this very question multiple times a day, each time completing it with a different observation: Is it me, or have people stopped saying ‘thank you’ when you hold a door open for them? Is it me, or are television commercials getting louder? Is it me, or is broccoli rabe a poor excuse for a vegetable?

Usually, I just pose the question to myself or sometimes to like-minded friends, but here’s one I feel I must put out into the PopMatters universe:

Is it me, or are has this campaign season turned into a referendum on women?

There are two words that have come to define the political atmosphere during these mid-term elections in the US. Not “hope” or “change”, as was the case just two short years ago. That was another era, it would seem. No, the delightful words that spring to mind this time are “witch” and “whore”.

“Witch”, of course, refers to Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for Senator in Delaware. Now, I’m not claiming that opponents or the media have been referring to her as a witch rather than calling her a “bitch” (a transparent trick that is sometimes used to great effect). And, yes, she brought it upon herself by acknowledging in a 1999 appearance on Bill Maher’s show, Politically Incorrect, that she “dabbled into witchcraft.” Yet... there’s a certain vindictive gleefulness in the way the witch label has been superglued to O’Donnell that I find disturbing.

And then, there’s “whore”. Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, once said political discourse is “an ugly language. It is very dead, definitely not a thing of beauty.” Ya think?! Apparently, the ugliness of it is so routine and accepted that even a veteran politician like Jerry Brown doesn’t blink when he hears it. As the i>LA Times reported on 7 October 2010, “An associate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown can be heard referring to his Republican opponent Meg Whitman as a ‘whore’ for cutting a deal protecting law enforcement pensions as the two candidates competed for police endorsements.”

Here was the recorded conversation between Brown and the associate:

“Do we want to put an ad out?… That I have been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be – that they’ll go to Whitman, and that’s where they’ll go because they know Whitman will give ‘em, will cut them a deal, but I won’t,” Brown said.

At that point, what appears to be a second voice interjects: “What about saying she’s a whore?”

“Well, I’m going to use that,” Brown responds. “It proves you’ve cut a secret deal to protect the pensions.”

Whether or not Brown meant he’d use the word “whore” in the campaign is questionable, but what’s not in question is that the advisor never would have proposed this brilliant campaign strategy if the opponent had been a man rather than a woman. Furthermore, Brown did not berate him for the use of such coarse, misogynistic language—or even the stupidity of the suggestion. (Back in the day, Brown dated rocker Linda Rondstadt, which makes this all the more disillusioning!)

There’s been something in the air in the weeks leading up to the US mid-term elections—even in cases having nothing to do with politics. For example, an editor of Sports Illustrated appeared on Morning Joe recently, promoting a new book featuring the covers of the magazine over the years. When correspondent Nora O’Donnell questioned the relative lack of women athletes featured on the covers vs. the preponderance of women models posing for the swimsuit issues, the best he could manage in response was: the models were “in shape and athletic.” The best I can manage in response to that is: ugh.

Sometimes even when politicians or the media are trying to be politically correct about women, they get it all wrong… because they don’t get it. Forbes magazine recently released its list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women”, naming Michelle Obama number one (above Oprah (#3) or Hillary Clinton (#5) or even Lady Gaga (#7). Were they simply unconscious of the message they were sending by choosing a woman whose power and influence derives largely from her husband’s position rather than her own merits? Even placing Obama in the pantheon of First Ladies, I’m not sure she’d be a stand out (nor do I think she necessarily aims to be one). So how does Forbes can justify the #1 ranking?

As the saying goes, you’ve come a long way, baby…but you’ve still got a ways to go.

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