Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hillary Lesson

One recent morning, as my 4-year-old daughter and I strolled to our favorite diner, she pointed to a bumper sticker plastered on a mailbox. A yellow, viraginous caricature of Hillary Clinton leered out from a black background. Big block letters proclaimed, “The wicked witch of the East is alive and living in New York"...Look, Mama,” she said. “That’s Hillary. What does it say?”...I wondered what to tell her — not only at this moment, but in years to come...Voting against Clinton does not make a person sexist — there are other reasons to reject her. But contemplating the “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” T-shirts, the stainless-steel-thighed Hillary nutcrackers, the comparison to the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest of “Fatal Attraction,” I struggle over how, when — even whether — to talk to girls truthfully about women and power.

...Right now, my daughter doesn’t know about the obstacles she may face someday, and I’m not sure of the wisdom of girding her in advance...The same quandary crops up with older girls. They are sports stars, yearbook editors, valedictorians. We have assured them the world is theirs, and they have no reason to disbelieve us. Like Clinton, our daughters are no victims. And yet, all is not quite well...Not when a woman who runs for office is accused of harboring a “testicle lockbox.” Clinton, whatever else she may be, has become a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success. Her bid for the White House has embodied both the possibilities we never imagined for our daughters — shattering not just the glass ceiling but the glass stratosphere — and the vitriol that attaining them can provoke. Both are real; so Godspeed, girls.

My daughter is older, in fact in college. I'm no fanatic (I hope): I got her Barbies, but looking through discarded junk in the attic realized that I'd given her pastel-colored, fully-fitted girls' toolboxes at least two Christmases running. She didn't care for the tools--or the Barbies.

My daughter and her friends are smart girls, ambitious girls who loaded their resumes with 4.0+ high school GPAs and extra-curricular activities, and who brought hoards of AP credits to college. I have students like that too. They'll all do well, I think: things have changed dramatically since I was their age. I'm not all that worried about the figures cited in this article about the dearth of women at the very top either:

[W]hile women make up 48 percent of new lawyers (and have hovered in that range for around a decade), the percentage of women who are law partners at major firms remains stuck at a pitiful 18.

I never wanted that kind of job. If I were a lawyer I'd want to be something more along the lines of Peter Kingdom operating a cozy little practice in a small town. I have a suspicion that most men who are partners in major law firms don't particularly want the job either, or rather that they're driven by the stick rather than the carrot. For men in management and the professions there's more pressure to get on the fast track and keep running, fewer opportunities to have a balanced life and more social opprobrium for what the world sees as a stalled career.

I was driven more by the stick than by the carrot myself. I wasn't one of those smart, ambitious high school girls cranking GPA and extra-curricular activities. I wasn't even planning to go to college until, after high school and a spell of clerical work, I realized what the alternatives were for women. It was fear, screaming terror of being stuck in a boring women's job, a job that was physically confining or involved endless repetition or contact with the public, that drove me through college, through grad school, to the PhD and tenure.

I was scared out of my wits, and that was probably a good thing. If I were a boy, given my miserable academic performance I would have been shunted onto the "vocational" track. After high school I would have gotten a tolerable blue-collar job and stuck with it. I don't mind physical work or getting dirty, and I love doing anything mechanical. I would have stuck with it and been reasonably happy, though not nearly as happy as I am in my profession, a career I pursued largely because I was scared out of my wits, scared of getting stuck doing a repetitious, sedentary job where there was nothing to show at the end of the day, where every day was like a long plane trip.

I still worry about those counterfactuals, possibly because of my interest in modal logic and sympathy for David Lewis' views about possible worlds. I stew about the dearth of tolerable fallback positions for women who don't manage to catch the brass ring, to get into management or the professions, and the fact that women by and large still can't get tolerable "bad" jobs--as mobile carpet-cleaners, gardeners, housepainters or tow-truck drivers--or skilled blue-collar jobs as mechanics, plumbers or carpenters. I get no sympathy from male colleagues--these are the jobs that they went to school to avoid.

No one, for that matter, including my fellow-feminists take me seriously: they can imagine wanting to make partner in major law firms but can't imagine being reasonably happy as plumbers and, in any case, don't seem to understand that all "bad" jobs are not the same. There's some interest in getting better wages for pink-collar workers but little or no interest ending sex-segregation at the lower end of the labor market. They take it as a given that working class women's concentration in "caring, catering, cashiering and clerical work" is a matter of choice.

And it is. But it's not always, or I suspect even usually, a reflection of ceteris paribus preferences. Women know, without even formulating that knowledge to themselves, that there is a wide range of jobs for which you just don't apply. You'll feel funny applying, the guy (or woman!) who takes your application will think you made a mistake, that you're trying to make some feminist statement or that you're just weird, and you won't get the job anyway. And if women consider the possibility they know that even if they get "non-traditional" jobs, they're not going to have the easy camaraderie with mates that guys can take for granted, which they would have working at conventional women's jobs.

But maybe feminism (at least as I understand it) will trickle down. Here I think Hillary may even have made a difference. After all the slicing and dicing of the electorate that showed her appeal was disproportionately to older, less educated, white voters it was working class women who were her base. In West Virginia she won the majority of men but the overwhelming majority of women. Young professional women, don't see themselves as having problems. The girls who got those 4.0+ high school GPAs, went to college and then got law degrees or MBAs know that they can get the same kinds of jobs as their male counterparts, and that if they don't make partner or get into the upper echelons of management, it will be by choice. Working class women know that they can't get the same jobs as their male counterparts, that not everyone can get a law degree or an MBA, and that their daughters will certainly have to spend most of their adult lives in the labor force.

It's too early now to look at the sexism that Hillary's campaign flushed out because the campaign is ongoing, and there's enormous anger and resentment--not primarily misogynistic either: people are sick of the Clintons' dirty tricks. But when this is over and Obama is safely installed in the White House, we will look back and reflect on what this whole business has brought to light. That, in any case, is my next book.


Scott Edelman said...

I wish that I could be as sanguine as you, and believe that Obama will get anywhere near the White House. I found it terribly depressing to vote in the Democratic primary this year, as I found myself thinking, while trying to decide which candidate had a better chance of winning—

Should I vote for Clinton, who will be beaten by McCain because the electorate hates women? Or do I vote for Obama, who will lose because the electorate hates African-Americans?

Even though either of them could do a better job than McCain, I don't think either of them has a chance. I feel that whichever of them takes the nomination is just getting people more accepting of the next woman or African-American to run. Preparing the ground is a good thing, it has to be done ... but meanwhile, it means four more years of idiocy at the top.

I can dream that people will find McCain as scary as I do. But I fear that's only a dream.

H. E. said...

Scott, you're overly cynical because you've been living in the outback surrounded by rednecks too long. I have great faith in the latte-drinking liberal elite and in the majority of the American public to whom latte-drinking liberal values have, over the years, trickled down. In particular, I have faith that however racist and sexist they may be, they're self-deceivers rather than hypocrites and will happily pull the lever or punch the card for Obama when the time comes--or for Clinton, if Obama is assassinated--congratulating themselves all the way home.

This isn't to say that they'd send their kids to a school where more than 10% of the kids were black if they could help it or hire a woman to steam-clean upholstery. That's real world stuff. Voting for a President and Supreme Leader of the Western World is like voting for American Idol: they're choosing America's Chief Celebrity. After all, that's why Obama has got such a following--though not, admittedly, in your splendid but remote neck of the woods.

Scott Edelman said...

Actually, though I may be surrounded by West Virginians, I remain unaffected by them, because as a telecommuter and rootless cosmpolitan, 95% of my daily interactions are with people outside the state, most of whom are in New York and California. So my cyncism (if that's what you'd like to call it; I prefer to think of it as realism) derives from that, and from reading newspapers, and from trolling the blogosphere, rather than from any osmosis of local values.

I'm a yellow-dog Democrat, so you know which lever I'll be pulling come November, but I've seen the frothing at the mouth over Hilary Clinton occur across all educational and socio-economic levels, and as for Obama, well, it would be nice to think that drawing 70,000 people to a rally meant something on a national level, but in the long run, I am not as hopeful as you are that this country is as advanced as you'd like to believe.

Perhaps I've been beaten up too many times to any longer have the luxury of hope. I believed Gore would win, no doubt about it. I even believed Kerry would win. But now, though I will vote for the eventual Democratic nominee, I can no longer pretend to hope.

The only thing I can hope is ... maybe the Democrats have a chance in 2012.