So here’s the great contradiction of the 2008 presidential campaign: It was all about women, and not about women at all.
With Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the presidency, and Sarah Palin’s high profile run for veep – which maybe set women back 50 years – the spotlight remained on individual women and, inevitably, on their pantsuits, cleavage and peep toe shoes.
But women’s issues? Invisible, barely uttered. Indeed, the person making the most sustained case for a focus on female-centered issues was Michelle Obama.
The high visibility of all of these women (each different, of course, but nonetheless successful and financially comfortable) makes it seem as if gender equality has been achieved and that sexism – except that coming from white male pundits on cable – is a thing of the past.
The word “sexism” got bandied about (laughably, by Republican operatives), but almost exclusively to characterize what you could or couldn’t say about Clinton and Palin.
That actual sexism and genuine economic discrimination might continue to keep millions of women (and their children) in their place? Preposterous. Isn’t that so 1970s?
If a woman can run for president and vice president, aren’t we done here? Isn’t feminism unnecessary, even irrelevant?
Television reinforces this notion, as well. Watch various successful, primetime shows – “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Boston Legal,” “The Closer,” “House,” the various iterations of “CSI” and “Law & Order” – and women are surgeons, top partners in law firms, judges, DAs, forensic scientists (although with cleavage usually reserved for “gentlemen’s clubs”).
On the news, in addition to Katie Couric now anchoring “CBS Nightly News” (and, by the way, doing a much better job than she’s given credit for), the cable channels are filled with female reporters, anchors and pundits.
Women like me celebrate these accomplished women who handle, quite well, jobs previously reserved for men. But ironically, women are now overrepresented as having achieved “it all,” so that the notion that there might be the need for ongoing feminist struggle seems, well, quaint.
Women who earn the median income – $35K for females in 2007 – working-class women and poor women have been erased from the national, public imagination.
In the real world, most women are not doctors, lawyers or TV reporters. What were, in 2007, the top jobs for women? Secretaries, nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers, retail salespersons, nursing and home health aids, waitresses, maids and housekeeping cleaners and hairdressers.
While some of these jobs provide a decent living, others pay minimum wage – or less. According to Sara Gould, president of the Ms. Foundation, two-thirds of the minimum wage and below-minimum wage work force in the United States is female. Of the 37 million Americans living in poverty, 27 million are women. The National Council for Research on Women reports that the subprime disaster disproportionately affects African-American and Latina women.
White women still make 77 cents to a man’s dollar (it’s 62 cents for African-American women and only 53 cents for Latina women), and a 2007 American Association of University Women study showed that after one year of employment, female college graduates earn 20 percent less than their male colleagues. After 10 years in the work force, they earn 30 percent less.
Many mothers face discrimination at work, some of it subtle yet costly. We have the flimsiest support network for mothers and children of any industrialized country, with, still, no paid maternity leave and no nationally funded and regulated day care system. African-American and Latina women, still vastly underrepresented or stereotyped in the media, endure more poverty, brutality, crappy healthcare and disease than their white counterparts.
The foundational role that female poverty plays in the health of a nation’s economy is a fact not only for the United States but for developing countries around the world.
So, I’m hoping that, as secretary of state, we might get Hillary “It Takes A Village” Clinton who – in addition to all the post-Bush disasters she’ll have to confront – will see the welfare of women and children as central to her statecraft.
And I’m cheering Michelle Obama on in her efforts to advance a variety of policies that support women and families.
The legions of invisible women, struggling without any acknowledgment and erased by a media that makes them seem the minority when they are the majority, need to be made visible right now. Maybe we can make the 2008 campaign about women after all.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.