But last night’s speech was also unusual in terms of the language used, which I’d like to talk about here.
The majority of media I consume (excluding fanfic, which has a pretty decent track record when it comes to this—and at the very least, we’re trying), is what I’d call casually sexist. This is a term I used a while ago when reviewing a work by Orson Scott Card. By “casually sexist,” I mean that it’s not something that is discussed or examined in detail, but in the world-building there is a subtle assumption of female inferiority. An undertone of “Well, of course she can’t/shouldn’t do [whatever], because she’s a woman.” Or an assumption of a patriarchal standard wherein the male is assumed and the female is Other. Often, this comes in the form of shaming men for not being “manly” enough, whatever that means. Because being unmanly is equated with being feminine, which is considered shameful.
And this often comes out in language—the universal “he,” or “men,” when you mean “humans in general” or in examples of specific people that are given to humanize an abstract concept. This drives me absolutely nuts in Christian sermons, where I hear it most. If the speaker gives an example of a person performing an action and the pronoun is “he,” often the action is fairly gender-neutral. But if the pronoun is “she,” the action is often gendered in a stereotypical way.
Here’s an example of this I just made up to illustrate the point: “the little boy who loves walking his dog, the little girl who learned to knit at her grandmother’s knee.” It’s not hard to imagine a little girl loving to walk her dog, but it’s a bit more of a stretch to imagine a grandmother teaching her little grandson how to knit.
I hear these family-oriented ones constantly: in speeches, a father and his son can have deep conversations, as can a mother and her daughter, but put a father and a daughter together and I will bet you we’ll get a version of the Period Speech. You know the one—Mom’s out of town for some reason, and of course the second she leaves is the second the daughter gets her first period and has to tell the dad (with an appropriate level of embarrassment because menstruation-shaming is now a thing). Dad has to rush out in a blaze of confusion to grab pads from the dizzying array of varieties on the shelves while Daughter sits at home guzzling ice cream and clutching at her stomach and sobbing. It’s usually portrayed as uber-traumatic, except it’s played for laughs. Because an adult male’s lack of basic understanding about the female body is something amusing instead of saddening.
This kind of thing makes me crazy because my father and I (a woman) have a really good relationship where we often discuss things that *gasp* aren’t directly related to our differences in gender. And if I need pads and can’t go myself, he calmly goes to the store and gets some, and I calmly thank him (and don’t complain if they’re the wrong brand), and we get on with our goddamn lives because this is a perfectly normal biological function and not a crisis. He’s my dad and should be there to help me and support me when I need him.
Oh, and if they’re portraying a conversation between a mom and her son, it’s usually about, what, embarrassing him over prospective girlfriends? These aren’t shown as often.
But I digress. Back to politics. I’m not sure what was up with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s speech with respect to this idea (transcript here). His views on women’s roles seemed somewhat muddled. He seemed very keen to demonstrate that he has worked with women before in many aspects of his life:
My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example. When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way. I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, “Why should women have any less say than men about the great decisions facing our nation?”
I wish she could have been here at the convention and heard leaders like Governor Mary Fallin, Governor Nikki Haley, Governor Susana Martinez, Senator Kelly Ayotte and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
As governor of Massachusetts, I chose a woman lieutenant governor, a woman chief of staff; half of my cabinet and senior officials were women, and in business, I mentored and supported great women leaders who went on to run great companies.
Thanks for being specific about the “great” women running “great” companies whom you’ve helped. Considering that women are, in fact, half the population of the world, I wasn’t sure what he was getting at in pointing out that he has worked with women in the past. Er…good for you? Are congratulations in order? And I don’t understand why Romney felt it was necessary to list the women who spoke at the convention. Was this just to highlight the fact that there were women present at all?
Romney then painted a strange picture of his past home life with his wife, Ann, and their five sons.
Those days were toughest on Ann, of course. She was heroic. Five boys, with our families a long way away. I had to travel a lot for my job then and I’d call and try to offer support. But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.
I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew without question, that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine. And as America saw Tuesday night, Ann would have succeeded at anything she wanted to.
I’m not sure where to go about unpacking that quote. I don’t understand why he says a mother’s job is more important than a father’s, or why Romney tries to use that reasoning to argue that somehow it makes it okay that he apparently wasn’t there for his kids and wife when they needed him, especially as his wife was working to overcome the challenges of multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. Or how to reconcile that vision of his own life with this one:
Today, women are more likely than men to start a business. They need a president who respects and understands what they do.
I agree with the second sentence of that quote. However, I have no idea how it relates to the first sentence. Is a business started by a woman inherently different than one started by a man?
So then let’s take Obama’s speech. I mean, obviously this comparison is going to look better for Obama because, well, he’s in a socially liberal party while the Republican platform for some reason is more conservative than it has been for years. Obama’s speechwriters are better, his oration is (wildly) better, and his message is one that I agree with on most points. He speaks as the president; he knows what he’s talking about and proves it in his speech. (His points on foreign policy and climate change, for example, were excellent, whereas Romney’s, respectively, were frankly embarrassing or non-existent.)
But what I noticed more than anything was that in the speech, Obama doesn’t do the whole “men-default, women-secondary” thing that I’ve grown accustomed/resigned to. Quite the opposite, in fact: rather than being casually sexist, he was instead casually feminist. It was so unusual to me that I noticed it right away. I sense that this is a trend, this mixing up of the pronouns when they could refer to either a male or a female, and I hope that this trend continues. But before this speech, I’d only seen it in child-rearing magazines at the gynecologist’s office, so it was something of a very pleasant surprise to hear it from the president.
In speaking about education:
And now you have a choice—we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school.
No child—a general, non-specific child—should have her dreams deferred. How easy would it have been to make the word “child” go with the male pronoun?—but he didn’t. Instead, the female pronoun was the default.
And speaking about immigration here:
You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home.
It’s not clear if this is a young lady Obama actually met or just an abstract example (I suspect it’s both), but it’s interesting that he made the hypothetical “young immigrant” female.
But I like this one best:
We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs, or the scientist who cures cancer, or the President of the United States, and it’s in our power to give her that chance.
This completely blindsided me. Three possible options for a little girl escaping poverty through education: a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, a renowned scientist, or the fucking president. He later gives a more concrete example of a girl he met at a science fair who conducted biology research while her family was in a homeless shelter. Nothing against stay-at-home-moms who do equestrian and charity work on the side, but that’s not the vision Obama has for the future women of America. In fact, it seems that his vision for women is exactly the same as it is for men.
If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: the lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election, and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves.
This is a time in our history where women continue to be shamed for wanting and enjoying sex, shamed for the shape of their bodies, told that there are circumstances in which rape somehow isn’t rape, steered away from doing certain jobs or having certain interests because they are not considered feminine enough, told that their interests and fields and jobs aren’t as important as those of men, expected to accept their identities as wives and mothers first and as human beings second, and thought of as secondary or an afterthought (or, worse, not thought of at all).
It’s important to remember that, yes, things have improved a lot—but we still have a long, long way to go to achieve equality. During this time, it’s nice to know that Obama still gets it, and is still actively trying to do something to bring the goal of equality closer—and that a man who understands the power of words is using them to reflect these ideas in his diction. All while in his speech, Romney has somehow managed the feat of talking about women more but saying so much less.