We should start with the affirmation that there’s no woman among us, from the most marginalized and exploited to the most loathsome and powerful, who has not been negatively impacted by sexism. (There’s not a man who hasn’t, either, but I don’t want to talk about men right now.) Throughout her career, Dianne Feinstein has faced sexist impediments, as has Amy Klobuchar—and because sexism, like all prejudices, is presumptive and baseless, that’s unjust. When Vox’s Laura McGann defends Klobuchar’s poor treatment of staffers by claiming “the same kind of behavior that damages women can benefit a man,” she is correct. When Jennifer Palmieri writes in Politico that “we still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses,” she speaks the truth. Kate Harding is probably even right when she tweets that “this country hates older women,” though the point is not very well illustrated by a long-serving elected official who’s also a multi-millionaire.
Because people like Feinstein have spent decades declining to take climate change seriously, we no longer have time to point out that sexism exists and stop there. Sexism is bad, always, of course—but if you came to me with news that someone used a gendered insult against Betsy DeVos, I’m going to respond like a dad who’s tackling a major home plumbing problem completely beyond his skills: “I’m kind of busy right now, pal!” It is the time for ruthless political prioritizing. Hand-wringing over insults against oligarchs and undue “pressure” on bosses is low on the agenda; we have more important tasks before us than fashioning a world that’s comfortable and accommodating for those particular demographics. You might even say part of the agenda is making those demographics uncomfortable and thoroughly un-accommodating them, though sexism would be an unacceptable (and impractical) way of doing so.
We have to devise more constructive ways of combating sexism, because going off like a car alarm whenever we spot it isn’t working.
It’s also not actually a defense of Klobuchar to say that she was acting like a man, though this has been the tack taken by many. “We do not expect a man to put others first,” McGann writes. “Assertiveness, decisiveness, and command of others are all considered positive qualities.” Considered positive by whom, I must ask; voters who’d be impressed by a candidate’s refusal to “put others first” sound to me like Donald Trump’s base. But liberal feminists are stuck in the mindset that if a man gets away with it, a woman should, too—or, worse, that acting “like a man” is what feminism is all about. These commentators seem used to calling a phenomenon “sexist” and getting heaped in praise on social media for the catch, all while ignoring the need to address how that sexism should be remedied. There are more worthwhile questions to ask than “is the coverage of men and women identical?” We already know it’s not. But we have to devise more constructive ways of combating sexism, because going off like a car alarm whenever we spot it isn’t working.
There’s another problem at play that transcends the constraints of shoddy feminist praxis. If you’re a middle- or upper-class professional white woman, including one who’s made a name for herself by writing about feminism, when you read a story about a boss screaming at her staff, or see a video of a coiffed Senator lecturing desperate children about her (highly debatable) governmental acumen, there’s a good chance you’ll identify with the authority figure. A lot of mainstream feminists still lust after the Lean In dream: they want to be entrepreneurs, executives, influencers with assistants and “teams.” They’re not going to tolerate a bunch of lesser nobodies talking back, forgetting forks, getting coffee orders wrong, or wanting no-strings-attached maternity leave. Here’s my response to those private aspirations, which were recently so au courant: not now, buddy. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who tries to reframe Feinstein as a righteous feminist icon or Klobuchar as a misunderstood, Dead Poets Society-style captain has just slipped me a piece of paper with the words “you don’t need to pay attention to me” scrawled on it in red. Thank you for the note, I genuinely appreciate it! Knowing what we do and don’t need to pay attention to these days is absolutely a gift.
Speaking of not paying attention, I am now prepared to talk about men, whose obligations in this matter are twofold. First, they must affirm that the world is sexist and that sexism burdens every woman, even if her wealth and race have isolated her from its worst effects. That may take some practice, some talk amongst themselves, some reading of books or at least blog articles—but just imagine the overwhelming impact if every man on the left could say, “yes, I see how that is sexist” when something is sexist, instead of expecting a woman to argue the obvious point with them. Second—and this one is admittedly a bigger ask—men need to stop doing and saying sexist things. If men could refrain from being sexist, it would free up a lot of energy for organizing against climate change and prisons or agitating for universal health care and a living wage, which are all things the progressive ones say they really, really want. Priorities, people! Sexism is squandering our limited lifespans.
Either roll up your sleeves and get under the sink, or don’t bother me.
So it’s a shame that so many of the men who do claim to care don’t quite get it right. The most revealing article about Klobuchar’s temperament I’ve read came from Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, who claims her “duplicity”—which he daringly redefines as “steely self-control”—is “not a political vice, even if it is a personal one. It is a political virtue.” The evidence provided to this point is Klobuchar’s uncompromising interrogation of Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing last September. According to Wood, she was “a model of frosty restraint” who managed, in maneuvers comparable to those of Sun Tzu, to plant “the desired doubt about Kavanaugh’s temper.” What fascinates me about this argument is that it seems to be made by someone unaware of how the Kavanaugh hearing ended.
When we feed toughness or combativeness or hubris or whatever other vaguely masculine name one can give this personality trait into our current political machinery, we don’t walk away with justice or more rights. We don’t get change. The machine is too robust to be broken or outfoxed by feeding it more of what built it, which is why we have to apply our creativity to dismantling the whole thing instead. Acting more “like men” isn’t the key to progressive success, and neither is shaming optimistic children who still have hope that the political process can accomplish meaningful goals. Either roll up your sleeves and get under the sink, or don’t bother me. There’s plenty of real work to do.