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The Subtext of the Argument That Obama Is America’s ‘First Female President’

Sometimes an idea is so absurd that I do not want to give it credence by replying. On the other hand if that absurd idea gains force, then I may find myself reluctantly responding to the ridiculous. Like right now.

Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, one of the few powerful women pundits in a field dominated by men as the Forward noted this week came out with a doozey of a column this last week: “Obama: Our First Female President.

Now, Parker is hardly what I would call a feminist, since she routinely refers to feminists in the third person (“they”), as opposed to the second person (“we”). In fact, I have especially tried to avoid her columns ever since she came out in support of then Harvard President Larry Summers when he announced that women might be innately worse in math and science than are men. (“Give Summers a break”, she admonished feminists, a plea that she has since been repeating in other forums as well.) Still, even for Parker, this is a new low.

The headline is bad enough, giving away to a man an accomplishment that really belongs to a woman (i.e., being the first woman at anything). Plus, the message to all the women fighting the glass ceiling in different areas of public life is completely undermining — as if to say, don’t bother, we already have a woman in office. Hardy-har-har.

But the actual content of what she writes is even worse than the headline. Her basic premise is that Obama is just like a woman, because he’s a wimp, and by the way, that’s why nobody likes him anymore. She is basically calling Obama a sissy, reinforcing the idea that the worst insult that a boy or man can receive is being called a girl. She’s insulting Obama, but she’s insulting women even more. Actually, there is some very troubling research about how the “tomboy” moniker is much better than “sissy”, and how many girls would prefer to be boys in contrast to how few boys would prefer to be girls – see, for example, Barrie Thorne’s classic book, “Gender Play.”

Worse, Parker once again supports the idea of innate gender differences — not only in math and science, but in overall behavior. “[Obama] may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises,” she writes, adding that “passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture…. The masculine-coded context of the Oval Office poses special challenges….Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.”

Parker’s entire argument is so very unhelpful. There is certainly merit to the idea that women are socialized into a certain “passivity” (i.e., unobtrusiveness, submission, or non-confrontation) while men are socialized into being the alpha, aggressive, even violent. But to talk about these processes as an innate difference instead of socialized gender roles is just backward, and damaging to women.

Her argument might have been interesting had she said that Obama is courageously defying male cultural expectations, and had she then taken note of the fascinating ways in which this makes people uncomfortable and how this discomfort with women finds expression in real life. She could have then asked “Why?” That is, if men are socialized one way and women another, why is it that the qualities that we socialize men into are the ones that people are more comfortable with in a president and in life. Now that would have been an interesting discussion. What does this entire dynamic say about gender roles in American culture and society? Or maybe it is about the Hollywood-Rambo-male influence on Washington male lore (think cowboy presidents.) Or maybe there is something here about realpolitik with an underlying philosophical argument that it is impossible to be a successful world leader if you have a collaborative, gentle, or honest personality style. That would have also been an interesting discussion.

But instead, Parker basically said that Obama is some kind of anomaly, as if his Y chromosome is defective. And THEN she said that it is this very Y deficiency that makes him a bad leader. The implication is that if his flaw is some kind of inborn effeminate thing, women by default will be worse presidents than men. Worse presidents, worse leaders, worse board members, worse pundits…. Where does the argument end? That is why this is just so very unhelpful.

It is especially upsetting to me that with so few women opinion-makers out there, one of the top one has to be writing things that are so damaging for the rest of us. This is just another reason why we need more women writers. Not to mention an actual woman president.

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