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Clinton video

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The press and the other candidates have been in an uproar this week over Hillary Clinton's alleged playing of the gender card. They've said, in particular, that her new video "The Politics of Pile-On" is a complaint about men ganging up on her because she's a woman.

I'm baffled by this. I think the video is cute and funny and nicely edited, and the whole point is in the clip of Clinton at the end, in which she says, smiling and confident: "I seem to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason."

It seems obvious to me that the implication is that the other candidates are piling on, not because she's a woman, but because she's such a strong candidate, and/or because she's by far the frontrunner in polls.

Ah, the articles say, but it wasn't just the video. It was also the speech Clinton gave at Wellesley. Why, in that speech, she said, "In so many ways, this all women's college prepared me to compete on the all boys' club of presidential politics." That's obviously a complaint about her male opponents beating up on her! She's claiming to be a victim!

Again, I don't get it. That transcript of the speech isn't the best-edited transcript ever, but I skimmed through it and I don't see a single line that complains about being a victim of male opponents. I see a strong woman talking about one of the sources of her strength. The speech is not about being a victim; it's about being strong.

No, wait! cry the articles. It's not the speech that says she's a victim, it's the fundraising letter she sent out after the debate! (More specifically, the letter that campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle sent out.)

This one I can't talk about in detail, because I can't find the text of the fundraising letter. But here's the most extensive quote I've found from it:

"On that stage in Philadelphia, we saw six against one. Candidates who had pledged the politics of hope practiced the politics of pile on instead. Her opponents tried a whole host of attacks on Hillary. She is one strong woman. She came through it well. But Hillary's going to need your help."

I can see a small amount of the victim-woman-attacked-by-men idea in those lines, sorta kinda. But I don't think I would have parsed it that way if I hadn't been primed to do so by dozens of news articles.

So I don't get it. Pretty much everyone claims that Clinton was, in all three of the above contexts, "playing the gender card," showing weakness, trying to say that men are beating up on her because she's a poor helpless woman. Whereas I see all three of them as saying that Clinton is a strong woman competing--and winning!--in the political arena; and only one of the three items even mentions the gender of her opponents.

Finally, many of the articles talk about Clinton's poor performance at the debate. I didn't see the debate and I haven't read the transcripts; I was going to say "but by all accounts she didn't do well," but I'm not even sure I can trust all accounts, given what all accounts say about the stuff above. At any rate, I'm perfectly willing to believe that she did badly in the debate. But if that's the real issue, I'd rather see the media and the other candidates focusing on that (and to their credit, some of them are) rather than trying to claim that Clinton is somehow calling herself a poor maligned victim.

Is it just me? Do y'all think that the video and the Wellesley speech and the fundraising letter are claims of victimization? If so, can you tell me more about why you see it that way? You may be right; I may well be missing something, and if so I'd be interested in finding out what it is.

(I suspect that one part of it may be that some people interpret the phrase "pile-on" as automatically implying unfair ganging-up on a weaker victim. I don't interpret it that way, but I'm now thinking that maybe many or most people do; that would explain a lot of the reaction I'm seeing.)

12 Comments

I've been ranting about this without posting, and in conversation it became clear to me that my understanding of the term "playing the [identity group] card" may not be the common one. So, Jed, how would you define the term?

Here's an example: When Justice Thomas said that his confirmation hearings had become a "high-tech lynching", was he playing the race card (that is, immunizing himself against legitimate criticism because of his membership in an identity group)? When he disparages affirmative action, is he playing the race card (that is, immunizing himself against charges of racism by virtue of his membership in the criticised group)?

By the way, Garance Franke-Ruta has a remarkable post over at TAPPED on this topic. Senator Clinton has exploited her gender, at least to some extent, as well she should. The thing that's interesting is how people have responded to this particular exploitation, as opposed to other moments that she has made use of. Was it, by the way, playing the Gender Card for her to have helped set up the White House Project with the Girl Scouts to create the Ms. President patch? And, given that the project is (in my arrogant opinion) a fine thing, is Senator Clinton's somewhat self-serving participation not a fine thing in itself?

As I said over in my Tohu Bohu, the reason there is a Gender Card to play is because there is one female candidate and eighteen male candidates. I feel no sympathy for the males, who have (largely) done very little to promote female leadership within their parties.

Thanks,
-V.


I was going to go read submissions, but now I can't resist responding to this comment.

Very good question; as I was writing this entry, I became aware that I might've been conflating two things, but I neglected to follow up on that thought. So, yes, I'm not quite sure exactly what everyone means by "playing the gender card," or whether they all mean the same thing by it; I probably should've left that phrase out of my entry, because what I'm really responding to are the statements that Clinton is claiming victim status, not the statements that she's brought gender into the debate.

However, I think that many if not most of the people who've used the phrase "playing the gender card" in this particular context do esssentially mean "saying that her opponents are treating her badly because she's a woman"--it might be more accurate to call it "playing the sexism card." Which is essentially my understanding of how the term is usually used. See Wikipedia's entry on playing the race card for some corroboration of this definition.

Btw, I did like your entry about having more female candidates; I would've linked to that if I'd thought of it.

And wow, that's a great Franke-Ruta post; thanks for the link. I think part of my reaction to this whole brouhaha may be that I've been privy to at least the edges of the "secondary" usually female-only conversation about this stuff for years, to the point that it didn't occur to me that many men may not be aware of it. So, yeah, I was reading Clinton's remarks in that context without realizing it. Fascinating.

On a side note, I think it's also worth noting that gender and race, despite being social constructs, are very very important in American society; no matter how much we may want to act as though we're judging the candidates solely on the basis of their ideas, beliefs, charisma, trustworthiness, and so on, I doubt there are more than a handful of Americans who can look at that stage and not immediately notice a black man and a woman there. The degree to which the candidates and the voters want to focus on that kind of thing may vary, but I think it's disingenuous to claim (as some have been implying) that we can ignore gender and race in this context.


I have two tangential comments: (And sorry Jed for not answering your question directly)

1. Some succinct advice for women who want to succeed in business, from the female CEO of a high tech company whose name I forget, in an issue of the San Francisco Business Times a few years ago: "Forget you're a woman and perform." All of the many other female executives who gave advice for the piece had much more to say, giving tips on finding mentors, balancing career and family, etc.

2. I have a visceral negative reaction to Hillary Clinton. It's based on all her years of scheming, conniving, and being a Washington insider. And, she's the opposite of inspirational. We need an intelligent, inspirational leader...and Hillary hits only half that bid. I will take Obama all day long, but I'm afraid he may be Hillary's running mate, which would put me in a quandry. And I have no problem whatsoever with a female president...Despite everything, I would probably still vote for Condoleeza Rice if she was running...she is actually capable of giving a great speech; we just don't see it that often. For people insterested in intelligent thoughts on Hillary, far better artculated than what I have managed here, see Peggy Noonan's piece in the WSJ today. President Reagan was a no doubt a great communicator, but Peggy Noonan was his "go to" speechwriter and she wrote many of his best lines, and none of his worst ones. To the surprise of some, Ms. Noonan also had some very positive things to say about Obama recently, and she is one of the absolute best, most insightful political columnists writing today.

For those of you who have managed to read this whole comment, and wonder if I am a democrat or republican, or just confused, I am none of the above (well, perhaps I am confused, but I will let you be the judge of that). I am an "issue by issue, candidate by candidate" independent.



"Forget you're a woman and perform."
Until anyone can plausibly argue that men who want to succeed in business have to forget that they're men, this isn't just sexist advice, it's advising women to support sexism.

Side note: Yesterday's NYT article about this kerfuffle was originally titled "Clinton Retreats on Issue of Men vs. Woman." I thought the headline suggested that Clinton had issued a new statement, so I went and read the article, but there was nothing in it about her "retreating"; it just rehashed the controversy. I was about to drop a note to the editors pointing out the misleading headline, but decided to reload the page first--and sure enough, the article had been retitled "Clinton and Opponents Tangle Over Attacks on Her." There is, btw, no sign on that page that they've changed the headline. I've been seeing this a lot lately--confusing or false headline posted on online article, later changed, no indication that a change has happened.


Jay: 'sfunny, I almost linked to Noonan's op/ed piece on Clinton, because she does eventually get around to focusing on the issues, and I want to promote that. And because she had a great line comparing Obama to Adlai Stevenson (who I had to go look up). Also because I was intrigued by Noonan's use of the phrase "light on his feet," which I'll have to do a post about someday.

But in this entry I wanted to focus specifically on the debate about Clinton's alleged claim to victimhood status, and Noonan didn't talk about that, so I left out the link.

Noonan's piece did, though, lead me to read the Wikipedia entry on Clinton this morning, because I know you've talked about her scheming and conniving, and Noonan mentioned her being involved in scandals, and I've never been quite sure what any of that was about. The Wikipedia article seems to me to indicate that there've been several accusations leveled against Hillary Clinton over the years, but that in the end there's never been enough evidence against her. So I don't know whether to read that as "everyone knows she's guilty but she's really good at covering her tracks" or as "she really is innocent but a lot of people are out to get her." I imagine that one's gut feeling about her has a big influence on which of those one opts for.

Anyway, I didn't really mean to turn this entry into an argument about the merits of a Clinton Presidency; my focus was intended to be specifically on this one particular set of claims about her this past week (the claims about her saying she's a victim of her male opponents' attacks) which, as far as I can tell, just aren't true. But so many people have been repeating them as if they were obviously true that it makes me wonder if I'm just missing something.


Oh, and re "forget you're a woman": I wouldn't put it quite like Dan did; instead, I would say that this is one of the standard arguments used by people who feel that things like racism and sexism no longer have any effect in our society. (Not saying you believe that, Jay; just saying that it is an argument commonly used by such people.) For example, I've heard a fair number of white people say that they're blind to skin color, that they just see people, not black people or white people. To which there are a lot of standard responses; one of the best is Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which has been widely imitated wrt other forms of privilege. Another standard response is to point out that when a white person talks about generic non-skin-colored "people," what they usually really mean is "white people."

To put it another way: "forget you're a woman" ends up not meaning "act like you're a generic nongendered human," but rather "act like you're a man." It may well be fairly effective advice in business (though I think it's not entirely accurate--for example, if a woman were to forget she was a woman, I imagine she would forget to wear a skirt and makeup, and I suspect that such a woman would not do well in the business world), but it's still buying into the belief system that traditional male-gendered ways of doing things are the right or best ways.


Too tired to do more than summarize this here, sorry. But was a study a while back that found that women academics who 'acted like men' got equivalently good evaluations from students. Act like men was defined in this case as setting high standards, being very cut-and-dry about expectations, being emotionally uninvolved with students, etc. Women could also 'act like women' -- be more nurturing, emotionally involved, etc., and students were just as happy with that -- until the woman stopped being nurturing (because the class was ending, or whatever), and her evaluations immediately plummeted.

Takeaway lesson: it's safest as a woman in academia to act like a stereotypical man. If you act like a stereotypical woman, you will be punished for not playing that role to the hilt.


Jed and Dan and Mary Anne, thank you for responses and Jed, I am sorry for hijacking the topic of your entry.

Follow-up points:

1. The female CEO who said "forget you're a woman and perform" in the SF Business Times was not, I think, suggesting to that people literally forget their gender. I think she was suggesting that some people get too wrapped up in gender issues at the workplace...and to succeed in business, it's best to focus on work and performance instead of gender.

2. I respectfully disagree with Dan; I don't think it's remotely sexist to say what the CEO said. Racism and sexism are still obviously issues in our society and in the workplace, but both would decrease in the workplace if everyone just focused on performance. It's an ideal to strive for: turning the workplace into a true meritocracy.

3. Most women and men who I have seen succeed in business are relentlessly focused on performance and execution, and they don't spend much time framing things in terms of gender issues, or worrying about gender issues. It's all about the work and the results. So in response to Dan, I would say that men who want to succeed in business should do the same thing as women: focus totally on performance, don't get wrapped up in gender issues, and if you're at the right company, everything will be fine.


My intuition is that "playing the X card" means that you're arguing about something, and at some point, instead of making an argument, you pull out a card that says "I am an X". The point is to counter your opponent's argument just by flashing this card, rather than by having to argue against them.


Jay: Sure, the one thing pithy phrases lack is nuance, and if you're looking for nuance about gender issues, you're better off working with Jed's remarks in this thread than mine.

I think I met that specific quote, though, with about the degree of nuance it offered. If nothing else, it's piss-poor tactics not to take into account how you're likely to be attacked. If you are looking for nuance, I think it would be better to back off from that quote and start fresh, because in defending it, you're having to imply that the source of gender discrimination is women being being aware of it, rather than the other way around.

I agree with you that if you focus on performance and are at the right company, you'll be fine, but part of a company being "wrong" is individual and structural sexism; as you say, sexism is still an issue in the workplace. As a random example, this morning I had brunch with a woman who, having organized a major business conference for her organization, was told by her employer that she would not be taken seriously at that conference because she is a woman and her voice is higher than men's. I don't think it does anyone any service to assert that this stuff comes from her being too wrapped up in gender issues and not thinking enough about performance.


To bring the conversation back to Senator Clinton, I think that to a large extent, she has performed, albeit without forgetting she's a woman. I am far to the left of her, politically, but I am impressed by the way she was able to become, in her first term in the Senate, quite a big macher. In doing it, she appears to have become what Joe Lieberman could have been: the leader of the interventionist, pro-business Democrats. Now, she's running as an interventionist pro-business Democrat.

As for the years as a Washington insider, well, on our side, she's no more or less of an insider then Senator Biden, Governor Richardson or Senator Dodd. Senator Obama has less Washington experience, true. On the Republican side, Senator McCain, Governor Romney, Senator Thompson and Mayor Giuliani are all Washington insiders from way back (although Senator McCain has managed to make far more enemies than friends whilst inside). Governor Huckabee may be the one with less Washington experience, there, although of course he's scarcely an outsider. Personally, I have no objection to an insider in the White House; some very good Presidents have been party hacks, and some lousy ones have been fresh faces.

At any rate, I think if you admire the ability to focus totally on performance, and will not support Senator Clinton because she is a conniving insider, then you have a problem. That's a general you, by the way, not just a Jay Hartman you; I think that many of us have problems going from general admiration of a trait to specific support of a candidate. This is particularly true when we live in a sexist society, when ambitious women are mocked and attacked in lots and lots of ways that influence, even without our being aware of it, our perceptions of specific ambitious women.

Fortunately, as a pro-labor Democrat who is less of an interventionist every year, I can rest comfortably, knowing that I don't support Senator Clinton in the primary for reasons that have nothing to do with either institutional or personal sexism. Right?

Thanks,
-V.


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