Tag Archives: gender and politics

The Difference Between Feminist Politicians and Politicians with Breasts: a response to Naomi Wolf

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

Naomi Wolf recently posted a blog on Al Jazeera entitled “America’s Reactionary Feminists: what do Palin and Bachmann have that make them so appealing to the American public?” I don’t doubt that this is an interesting question. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the confusing and simplistic answer Wolf provided- particularly the discussion around right wing feminism.

It may be worth taking a step back to ask why female politicians who do not identify as feminists continually get categorized as one. Surely we must be beyond the ‘woman=feminist’ discussion? Sadly, apparently no.

First, the scoop on where Palin and Bachmann stand on feminism: Palin wasn’t a feminist, then she was. She changed her stance on the term and now identifies with it- largely equating the term with her ‘rogue’ approach to politics not her anti-abortion, anti-social safety net, and her support for cuts to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Bachmann has made it more clear that she is NOT a feminist; instead, calling herself pro-woman and pro-man (hmm).

Back to Wolf. Let’s just ignore her references to the two women as tigresses, soccer and hockey moms for now and get to her central argument, which is that there are two reasons Palin and Bachmann are attractive to American voters.

First, Wolf argues that these two candidates are able to project the same emotional populist demagoguery (her words, not mine) that other popular figures like Malcom X and Joe McCarthy did. Truthfully, I’m not sure where Wolf is going with this point- can we put Palin, Bachmann and Malcom X in the same category??- so I’m not going to dwell on it. Instead, I’ll focus on her second point, which is that their popularity is due to “a serious historical misreading of feminism.” She explains “Because feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was articulated via the institutions of the left…there is an assumption that feminism itself must be leftist. In fact, feminism is philosophically as much in harmony with conservative, and especially libertarian, values – and in some ways even more so.” She goes on to claim that “the core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left” and that “even if they themselves would reject the feminist label. In the case of Palin – and especially that of Bachmann – we ignore the wide appeal of right-wing feminism at our peril.”

It is hard to know which feminism Wolf is talking about. Maybe liberal feminism- which does emphasize institutions, equality, quotas, and choice- but certainly the various black, radical, and Marxist feminist voices that were equally relevant- and more focused on labor exploitation, racial discrimination, marginalization, and recognizing difference- during this time weren’t necessarily focused on established institutions of the left or right. To say that the core of feminism is about individual choice and freedom also doesn’t reflect the diversity in feminist approaches and is as intangible and vapid as most other political generalizations about choice and freedom.

So how can Palin and Bachmann prove a wide appeal to right-wing feminism given that they don’t identify as feminists (at least not all the time) and the types of policies they support? Wolf seems to be making the leap to argue that the conservative politics that Palin and Bachmann share represents a new type of right wing feminism; however, feminism has been about eliminating gender inequalities, acknowledging difference, and radical change- the antithesis to the call for a return to ‘traditional values.’ There seems to be some ‘degrees of separation’ logic happening here: most feminism is political, most feminists are women, therefore political women must be feminists. Logic 101 would help identify the problem with this train of thought and point Wolf (and hopefully those who want to write about Palin and Bachmann together in the future) to the following conclusions: the only thing remotely feminist about these two is that they both have breasts.

Does Menstruation Explain the Gender Wage Gap?: A Kiwi theory

(This post originally appeared on DuckOfMinerva where I am a regular contributor)

The CEO of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, an association that promotes New Zealand businesses, Alasdair Thompson sparked a heated debate last week when, during a discussion on equal pay, he publicly claimed that women’s productivity was impacted by their periods. He claimed that women “take the most sick leave” and explained “ you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do.” He later went on to say “Men and women are fortunately different. Women have babies. Women take leave when they have their babies.” In a subsequent interview he claimed: “Some women have immense problems with their menstruation – immense problems. You know they can pop a lot of paracetemol and drag themselves into work, but it’s hard for them.” Thompson seemed to only make matters worse when he later rationalized his comments by referencing one of his receptionists who he says told him that when some women call in sick they cite their periods as the reason.

Is it possible in 2011 that a top CEO could honestly believe that the main reason for pay disparity between men and women is menstruation? Really? This story is so frustrating that it is difficult to know where to start. Logically there are three main assumptions that Thompson is making that warrant examination: first, that women take more sick days than men; second, that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days; third, that these period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap.

The first assumption- that women do indeed take more sick days- is true, but not significant. In New Zealand men typically take 6.8 sick days a year, with women taking 8.4. While there are no clear statistics available for the US, studies in the UK also show, on average, men take 140 days off sick during their career, with women taking 189 sick days. A Finnish study also found that while women were 46 percent more likely than men to call in sick from work for a few days, there was no statistically significant difference between men and women in terms of their long-term leave from work.

The second assumption- that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days- is much more difficult to substantiate. The New Zealand study indicated that menstruation was not a significant factor in women’s sick days. The Finnish study noted that working conditions for women were consistently poorer for women and could be a primary factor in fatigue, and sickness rates. The UK study indicated that single mothers had the highest rate of sickness absence, indicating that family pressures could be a factor in sick days. The UK study also found that women were more apt to “try their hardest to make it to their desk” and “feel guilty” if they fell sick.

The third assumption- that period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap- is the weakest link in Thompson’s unfortunate logic. Decades of activism and research surrounding equal pay legislation and policies have shown that the biggest factor in the wage gap is attitudes.

Thompson’s comments reveal embedded misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding women’s ability to contribute to the global workforce. Thompson is right on one account- women are different from men. Women are (at least for now) the only sex that can carry children and give birth. Further, most women are the primary caregivers to children- regardless of their work duties. Recognizing these two differences in more rational and supportive ways should result in changes to workforce policies rather than accusations of female liability.