Frustrated at Hertzberg

Hertzberg mouths off about gender- vs. race-discrimination

I like what I've read from Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker, and I like what I've seen of his blog, on the magazine's website, as well. But his comment about gender discrimination in the June 23 issue (yes, I'm behind on my reading...) really pissed me off.

Hertzberg was writing about the end of Clinton's primary campaign (ancient history, I know). In the last half of the article, however, after noting that "[c]ompetitions among grievances do not ennoble," he nonetheless engages in just such a competition. He argues that, compared to "the oppressions of gender," "the oppressions of race have cut deeper." His examples:

1. "[T]here is no gender equivalent of the nightmare of disenfranchisement, lynching, apartheid, and peonage that followed Reconstruction," or the 250 years of slavery that preceded it. Slavery as such, no. But women certainly (as Hertzberg acknowledges) were disenfranchised; they also were denied the right to own property, they have been and continue to be paid wages substantially below those paid to men and they all too routinely are subject to brutal violence (domestic violence, rape) at the hands of men. Remember Tailhook, anyone? Have we passed the Equal Rights Amendment yet? States -- and a presidential candidate? -- are pushing laws that would force a woman to keep in her body a fetus that was the result of rape or incest or that threatened her health. Health insurance pays for men's Viagra but not women's birth control. Pretty nightmarish to me.

2. "Nor has any feminist leader shared the fate of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X." Have there been any feminist leaders of this caliber in the last 50 or 75 years? Who? Gloria Steinem? Oprah? My city has official holidays celebrating two of these guys (Dr. King and Malcolm X); how many holidays are there celebrating women? (Hint: zero.)

3. Hertzberg then suggests that African-Americans are underrepresented in government, compared to women, by noting the number of women and African-Americans who currently are serving as governor or United States senator (16 women senators vs. one African-American senator; 8 women governors vs. 2 African-American governors). These numbers look less dramatic, however, when you compare them to the percentage of women vs. African-Americans in the United States population (50.8% women, 12.4% African-American according to 2006 census data). [Hertzberg addresses this point, raised by someone who commented on his original article, on his New Yorker blog.] Nor is there any acknowledgment of the potential distortion/dilution of African-American votes through racial redistricting/gerrymandering -- a trick that obviously doesn't work against women. I just can't be thrilled, or find some kind of political equality, in 50+% of the population being represented by 16% of the senators or governors. And how about the comparative representations on the Supreme Court?

As with so many (all?) of the other topics discussed on this blog, this is not just a one-dimensional (in this case, political) problem. Gender inequality lives in the workplace, in sports, in advertising and in the way we raise our kids. It lives in our language, which too often embodies our assumptions about the roles we should play. One example that struck me (and not just me): Supreme Court decisions in the past year or two, instead of using a gender-neutral term to refer to a generic lower-court judge, now invariably use "he." Just a little thing, in isolation, but it gets to me.

Hertzberg agrees with Clinton that "from now on it will be 'unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States.'" I wish I could agree.

Yes, things have improved, and I hope -- maybe even trust -- that they will continue to improve. I'm thrilled that my daughters got to see a woman running, seriously, for president. I hope that no one will tell them, as I was told when I was a kid, that a woman will never be president. But I won't believe that a woman can, in fact, be elected president of this country unless and until I see her swearing the oath of office. And even then, it will seem remarkable.

All right, tft; I've had my say. You can boot me off to Shakesville now....

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