Thursday, March 27, 2008

Which Candidate is the Woman?

In our discussions about the current Democratic showdown between Clinton and Obama, Clara has often remarked that Hilary Clinton can't afford to appear to be "soft," because soft rhetoric or soft positions on issues will be dismissed as somehow tainted by her femininity. She has to be hawkish on foreign policy. She has to have metaphorical balls.

Back when I was starting out as a "stay-at-home father," about fifteen years ago, I read a book called Composing a Life that had a great impact on my thinking. The book is by Mary Catherine Bateson (the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson), and it explores how women successfully deal with the complexity of lives that don't often follow the straightforward career track of men. She talks about improvisatory power of women in creating lives for themselves that often take them to unexpected places, and involve them in many changes and ambiguities. Here is a passage that has stayed with me for all these years:

Women's lives are valuable models because of the very pressures that make them seem more difficult. Women have not been permitted to focus on single goals but have tended to live with ambiguity and multiplicity. It's not easy. But the rejection of ambiguity may be a rejection of the complexity of the real world in favor of some dangerously simple competitive model. When a nation goes to war, it no longer has to seek a balance between guns and butter but must give a clear priority to guns; this is why war often comes as such a simplifying relief. Any analytical tool that seems to provide a comparable simplification of the multitude of choices in the real world is embraced—the bottom line, the GNP. Any technique for smoothing diverse values into a single scale, such as the conversion of human lives or clean air into dollars, models this simplification. Women, torn between their own creative energies and concern for each member of their families, are reminded daily that role stereotypes and balance sheets are equally inadequate tools for seeking long-term well-being. These lessons in the arithmetic of caring are available for men as well (184-5).

Those improvisatory skills, and the ability to deal successfully with complexity and ambiguity, would be great skills for a President to have. Unfortunately, voters like things kept simple. Barack Obama's speech on race acknowledged the complexity of the issue, but many commentators insisted on evading what Senator Obama actually said and taking refuge in simplifications. On the issue of gender, too, most people seem to prefer things simple and stereotyped.

The feminist movement has often been primarily about moving women into positions of power and influence in the competitive world of men—to create female CEOs and commanders-in-chief. But as a "stay-at-home father" and homemaker, I've been more interested in the ways in which traditionally "female" values such as caring and cooperation can become available for men. I don't want to accept that the world always has to be structured according to male values of competition and domination. Another book that greatly influenced my thinking back in the early and mid-1990s was Rosemary Radford Ruether's Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes:

The "liberation of women" cannot be seen simply as the incorporation of women into alienated male styles of life, although with far fewer benefits, for this simply adds women to the patterns of alienated life created by and for men.... Rather, what is necessary is a double transformation of both women and men in their relation to each other and to "nature." Women certainly need to gain some of the individuality that has been traditionally purchased by men at their expense. But this individuation should not be based on exploitative domination..., but needs to remain in sustaining relation to primary communities of life. The ways of being a person for others and being a person for oneself need to come together as reciprocal, rather than being split between female and male styles of life (265).

Instead of joining men in attempting to dominate the earth and each other, women and men need to learn to tread more softly on the earth together. Men and women need to learn to express themselves without oppressing others. Unfortunately, women like Senator Clinton still seem trapped by stereotypes. To avoid one stereotype, she has to fall into another. She can't openly embrace her own complexity as a woman, or risk addressing the complex issue of gender as Obama has addressed the complex issue of race.

It is a step forward that a male candidate like Obama can, with apparent genuineness, embrace the values of complexity, caring, community, and cooperation. Ironically, he seems to offer a vision of an America that is more profoundly shaped by these traditionally "feminine" values. But we don't complain that Obama is being a woman. Unfortunately, Clinton has to be hyper-competitive, hawkish, and often simplistic: in other words, she has to be more of a man than Obama is.

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