Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who did you vote for in 2008- a different kind of barrier

I was given Rebecca Traister's Big Girl's Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women  as a Christmas gift. Traister traces the election from the months leading up to the Iowa Caucuses through to the actual election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. I am only half way through and am finding a whole side to the election I seem to have missed. Who did I vote for in the primary? I live in Pennsylvania where the primary is in April. Normally, the primary races have been sorted out by the time April roles around. Not in 2008 and I found myself having to choose. I didn't want to choose. And according to Traister I was not alone. I liked Obama, he was my age. Like me he came of age after Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Roe v. Wade and the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I had read his books and found his written desire to reach across party lines to work for the national good spoke to my own way of approaching problems and controversies. But Hilary was a woman, albeit older then me by 14 years, and other than some of her recent votes in the Senate she had spent her life working for things I believed in. I was thrilled by the prospect that the Oval Office might look more like me either in gender or in age.

According to Traister, the election brought to the fore a great deal of latent sexism and racism. At one point, one African American woman writer shared with Traister her frustration with being asked by white male journalists if she were going to vote for Obama because he was African American or Clinton because she was female and wanting to turn the question on its head and ask her interrogator if he were going to vote for Obama because he was male or Clinton because she was Caucasian! But what Traister focuses on in her book is the degree to which Clinton seemed to stir really violent reactions not just from conservatives of both genders but male liberals, which led Traister to ask, were men and women ready for a woman president?

In reading this book, I am struck by how much of her strength/herself Hilary had to temper in order to get to where she got to in the Senate and in the Primary. Hilary was pilloried for allegedly crying in New Hampshire, showing cleavage, wearing mannish clothes, sounding shrill in a debate; to be taken seriously her campaign leadership elided her femininity, her sense of humor, her caring for friends and family. When she was strong and decisive and knowledgeable her legion critics called her a harpy, know it all, and worse; when she was more overtly feminine it proved to those same critics that she was incapable of making the tough Presidential decisions. Are we ready for women to be themselves and to be leaders at the highest levels?

Given the treatment Clinton and Palin received in the hands of the press and the pundits, just for being women--regardless of their political views and platforms (or for that matter how Nancy Pelosi was depicted in comparison to Newt Gingrich in 2010), I wonder what I need to do to best prepare my young female students for the continued resistance they will undoubtedly experience (quiet and polite or overt and ugly). What skills do these young women need? The twenty-first century educational emphasis on collaboration, team work, and shared strengths seems to play to women's natural tendencies as social beings. But at the top of each and every ladder leaders need to be articulate, exude strength and confidence and be willing to be themselves-including being women. How do we as educators draw out from this collaborative focus our female student's strength and willingness to take charge when necessary. How do we give them the tools to counter the criticisms they will face for assuming that they can lead women and men? Our school's mission states that our students will be "stewards and leaders of a better world". How do we equip our young women to lead a world not yet sure its ready for women leaders?

I will be exploring these questions in my approaches to working with my students and the ways in which we approach material and projects in the months to come and would appreciate comments or thoughts from others.