Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

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Power Lines: Hillary’s Nomination

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky wedding, NYC
Interesting to find this picture circulating on Twitter soon after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.  Of the millions of extant photographs of Hillary—whether taken from throughout her public career or in the company of her husband former president Bill Clinton—, the choice of this particular image to punctuate news of her unprecedented political achievement was almost shocking.

It pictures Hillary with her late mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea, taken on the day Chelsea married.  Standing to one side of her aged mother, Hillary is the embodiment of conventional femininity and maternal pride.  She is simply a mother and a daughter, occupying a place in the generations celebrating a classic rite of passage.  Sartorially, the lady politician famous for her pantsuits has disappeared: if anything, her fancy dress wears her.

How far we have come, the picture telegraphs, particularly in light of Mrs Rodham’s story.  She managed to surmount a hard loveless childhood to raise and inspire a daughter who has bent tradition to become the symbol of something new in American history.  Mrs Clinton’s own ambitions, coupled with those of her husband, long ago catapulted them to the heights of political celebrity, a journey synonymous with radical social mobility.  The Clintons have grown dramatically more wealthy.  And who knows what the future holds for Chelsea?

Though a quintessential American success story, the Clintons are no longer representative of most Americans.  In that regard, Chelsea’s fancy wedding in Duchess County, New York, encapsulates everything that a segment of the American public dislikes about the Clintons.  The private and public lines of Hillary’s destiny are awkwardly entwined, as controversies over her email server make clear.

If this were a photograph of Kennedy men, taken back on the day of Jack’s wedding, say, how different our reactions would likely be.  Ah, yes, we would say: here is Jack getting married, perpetuating the Kennedy dynasty.  We might not pause to criticize the expense of his suit or the nature of his political ambitions.

Bill’s absence from the picture: yes, he may be absent.  Should Hillary become president, increasingly she will be writing her own story, and, as this photograph’s appearance on the internet suggests, the visual culture of the presidency, and women’s sense of their place in the nation, will also change.  The story line is being written even now, of the power lines that have gotten American women to where they are.

Image:
Photograph by Barbara Kinney

Related
Judith Shulevitz, How to Fix Feminism (NYT)

Columbia Has Her Eye On You

A modern Columbia reminds American women to vote

A very modern-looking Columbia, dressed in a becoming flapper style, adorns the cover of Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on October 2, 1920.  Her message?  “Don’t Forget!  Columbia has her eye on You and expects You to vote for the Good of the Nation”  (Columbia being the traditional female personification of the United States).

Her message had special meaning, given that women had gained the right to vote just months earlier, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified on August 26.  Women were about to cast ballots in a presidential election for the very first time, the fruit of an epic political struggle that American women began way back in 1848.

Over the decades, myriad arguments had been advanced both for and against women’s suffrage.  Some opponents to suffrage argued that political participation would degrade the female sex; others worried it would quickly lead to a government by females.  And of course it was argued that woman suffrage was contrary to the vision of the Founders, as laid out in the Constitution.  Americans of the Progressive era understood that the female vote would inevitably alter the dynamics of American politics–they just didn’t know how.

Suffragists responded partly by arguing that women would have a civilizing effect on political life, an attitude that Leslie’s get-out-the-vote appeal was eager to prove.  As it turned out, newly enfranchised women voted in far smaller numbers than did men.  Not until 1980 would the size of the female vote exceed that of males.  Even today, it’s unclear how the female vote as such will influence the outcome of the current campaign.

Don’t forget!
  Cast your vote for the good of the nation this Super Tuesday.

Image: Drawing by [William] Haskell Coffin
from this source.

The Feminist Gap

There was something poignant (and grotesque) about the ‘scolding’ that Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem gave younger American women this week.  The subject was Hillary and the support that female voters—as women—supposedly owe her.  The tone was dire yet dismissive.  Madeleine Albright, revered for her achievements as a diplomat, essentially threatened wayward women with punishment, warning that if they didn’t ‘help’ Hillary they would go to hell.  Gloria Steinem, now a shocking 81, relied on sexual stereotyping to explain why some young women have chosen to vote for Bernie.  These women, she claimed, care only about ‘where the boys are’—lemming-like, they have gravitated to Sanders because ‘the boys are with Bernie.’  In other words, young women in Sanders’ camp suffer from an out-of-control sex drive!  Both Albright and Steinem asserted in different ways that young women had forgotten their rightful duty, which, in the eyes of older feminists, is to practice sex solidarity.  This tenet, so central to first-generation feminism, is outmoded and deeply unpalatable.

The desperate awkwardness of these protests points up a problem that Hillary is having.  How does her sex, how does the women’s movement, figure in her campaign?  Hillary never was much of a bra-burner; she never wasted much time railing against society’s constraints or male tyranny.  Instead, she crossed over early, believing that doors were open and assuming that full equality and freedom were hers.  She carved out a remarkable path, relying more on her own grit and talents than on the dictates of feminist ideology.

In some profound sense, Hillary is not free to tell her story, which is that of a woman who has been more in the public eye for more of her life than any other woman in American history.  Contrary to Steinem’s assumption about the fate of women, Hillary has not ‘lost power’ as she’s aged.  Instead, Clinton is one of the most well-known and powerful women on the face of the globe.

As Clinton has grown more unusual, more distinguished, and more famous, her capacity to pass as a representative woman has inevitably waned.  The fact is one to reckon with in the remaining campaign.

Why Hillary Should Declare, “I’m Worth It”

Who can stand the sexist attacks on Hillary’s speaking fees?

The questions aim to make voters aware that, while not in office, Hillary accepted huge fees for speaking to audiences that included big banks.  Like many effective campaign tactics, however, questioning the legitimacy of her fees also serves other, less-than-creditable ends.  The questions implicitly cast aspersions on Hillary Clinton’s essential worth, on her value as a veteran stateswoman, and on the integrity of the speaking engagements themselves.  The issue is a classic ‘dog-whistle’ tuned to the frequency of the envious and chauvinistic.

The underlying assumption?  Something must be wrong because Hillary couldn’t possibly be worth that kind of money.  Thank god Hillary is running for office!  She’s giving us an opportunity to express our resentment toward women who defy social norms and out-perform men.  How dare she make that kind of money in one day?

What’s clear from Secretary Clinton’s responses is that she doesn’t feel guilty.  She doesn’t feel implicated in the banks’ decision to pay up to hear what’s in her heart and brain.  Thank goodness she isn’t apologizing for the very legitimate demand within the business community to learn from one of the nation’s most experienced leaders.

But Hillary, for the sake of all women struggling against their own glass ceilings, you must go a step further.  You must assert that your experience and perspective on American politics are unique, and that, in the eyes of the market, you deserve your fees.

You might lose the anti-capitalist vote, but you’d win the gratitude of millions of American women who are tired of being treated as though they can’t possibly be worth as much as a man.

Ready or Not

Puck Christmas 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine.  She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity.  She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.

Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying.  Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.

In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored.  Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions.  Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee.  The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free.  So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.

Image from this source.

Maidens Speed-Skate, 1809

Women racing on ice skates in 1809.
‘At a women’s skating race in Leeuwarden [the Netherlands] in 1809, the crowd watched sixty-four unmarried women vie for a gold cap-brooch. The winner was Houkje Gerrits Bouma. For greater ease, many had thrown off their cloaks. Baur painted the finalists with bare arms, a jettisoned cloak on the ice. It left little to men’s imagination and caused an outcry; therefore it was the last women’s race for many years.’

 

Image: Nicolaas Baur (Dutch, 1767-1820)
‘Women’s Skating Competition on the Stadsgracht in Leeuwarden, 21 January 1809’
Rijks Museum via Wikimedia Commons

This is the ninth in an occasional series of posts on ice-skating.
Click here to go to the first post.

Betsy Ross of the Capitol

A woman mends the American flag in a back room of the Capitol
“Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Georgeieanna Higgins.  Official title is Seamstress to the United States Senate, but for years has been called the ‘Betsy Ross of the Capitol.’  She is responsible for keeping the flag that flies over the Senate wing of the Capitol in proper flapping order.  This is no mean job since the flag flies night and day when the Senate is in session, which means a terrific beating from the elements, an average of 12 Flags is used each session”  (March 2, 1937)


Image:
from this source
.

The bicycle starts a revolution

A couple dressed in cycling clothes congratulates themselves for leaving the cumbersome fashions of the nineteenth century behind.
THE BICYCLE possessed some kind of magic, its mute presence transforming American society.  Originally known as a velocipede, the bicycle had been around since the early nineteenth century, but only after 1890 did the contraption become safer and gain popularity throughout the States as something associated with freedom and pleasure. Continue reading