Suskind Flap: Is the Obama administration sexist?

You might look at my headline and reply, “Is the Pope Catholic?” because you agree with my contention that institutional sexism is bound to exist in a structure so traditionally male-dominated. Read on and let me know what you think about Arena’s question of whether the new Suskind book’s revelations about the treatment of women in the White House will damage Obama.

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Arena Asks: Tuesday’s release of a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind is causing heartache at the White House. “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President” describes a difficult work environment for women in the Obama administration’s early months, among other revelations. How much, if at all, will the book damage the Obama White House? And did staffers err in giving access to the author, who previously wrote books often critical of the George W. Bush administration?

My Answer:It should come as no surprise to anyone that institutional sexism exists in the White House, as it does in virtually all leadership structures traditionally run by men, progressive or conservative. Suskind’s findings were hardly new or unique to the Obama administration.

True, Obama should be more sensitive because he has experienced institutional racism. So women rightly expect better of him, but hey, in the end, he is still a man’s man who does business on the golf course or over a beer. When Obama appointed a largely male (and largely white men associated with either Obama’s campaign or previous administrations) team of top advisors, it was clear women could expect business as usual: they would not be taken into the inner circles nor would their voices be heard at the same decibels as men’s. Women experience this kind of subtle discrimination every day in almost every venue.

What was different this time–and this is huge–is that the women spoke up for themselves, demanded changes, and from evidence in Suskind’s book, got at least some of what they wanted. It is incumbent on women to embrace our own power to make these changes happen. If Obama shows a sincere and continuing commitment to erasing the institutional sexism and moving women to parity in the inner circles of power, he will not be hurt, but could actually benefit from this issue being aired in Suskind’s book.


Pump Up the Passion: Why Dems Need a Bachmann!

I wrote this commentary for the Daily Beast and titled it “Pump Up the Passion.” Of course, they flamed it up and called it “Dems Need a Bachmann!” My point is that this is a moment of opportunity for progressive women to soar to leadership in a politics that sorely needs leadership, but we must a) learn from our adversaries and b) stake out a bold agenda to define and drive the debate. I value your opinions greatly, so tell me what you think about these ideas.

Passion! What a relief to see President Obama express some in his jobs speech Thursday. And for the first time that I can remember, a presidential proposal specifically addressed women’s essential role in driving the economic engine.

But the political narrative shifts awfully quickly these days. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s presidential candidacy, a hot ticket just a couple of weeks ago, is suddenly melting. And Sarah Palin is in her bus, hurtling full-speed toward self-parody as an attention-seeking political used-to-be. While women’s importance in the political landscape can no longer be overlooked, some might say that the much-hyped “year of the conservative women” is over.

To feminists, right-wing ideologues like Bachmann and Palin might seem like tools of the patriarchy, co-opted by their oppressors as mouthpieces for a party that would disempower women and return us to the days of back-alley abortions and economic discrimination. But you have to hand it to the women on the ideological right. What they lack in compassion they make up for with passion. They have the fire of moral certitude. You know where they stand. That kind of clarity connects with voters.

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Kevork Djansezian / Getty ImagesAnd so I say, learn from your adversaries. Progressive women could stand to emulate these characteristics of their sisters on the other side of the partisan aisle. I doubt fewer right-wing women will run in 2012, and that’s fine with me. But the dual Bachmann-Palin flameouts provide a critical window of opportunity for progressive women—whose numbers and experience in elective office are triple those of women on the right, and who have by and large been the unsung trailblazers for all women in politics—to kick their roles up a few notches and lead the nation forward from its current morass.

“Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have breezed through the door that Hillary painstakingly built.”

It’s great that barriers to all women in politics have fallen precipitously despite continuing media bias and unequal access to big-money donors. Voters are more likely to trust women candidates, and rightly so: women legislators work harder and bring home more results for their constituents. Though they make up just 17 percent of Congress, women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, 54 percent of voters, and upward of 60 percent of progressive voters. That’s voting power that, if mobilized collectively and strategically, could change everything.

So many progressive policy initiatives and social movements since the 19th-century suffragists have been led by progressive women that it’s no wonder we get cognitive dissonance from the possibility that the first female president might be a right-wing Republican. Progressive women’s groups have led the way to recruit, train, and support women to run for office. Most of those groups are nonpartisan, such as the Women’s Campaign Forum, The White House Project, Women Under Forty, the 2012 Project, Running Start, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Without them, we would not have had Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run for president, after which voters understood that leadership is as likely come in a yellow pantsuit as in navy gabardine with a yellow tie. But as Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, CEO of the Women’s Campaign Forum, the oldest organization financially supporting women candidates, wryly told me, “Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have breezed through the door that Hillary painstakingly built.”

That’s what we get for playing too nice. So let’s face down the progressive elephant in the room once and for all and nix the idea that any woman in political office is a net plus. Although complicated policies that work for the country are harder to communicate than simplistic antigovernment nastiness, women like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) show it’s quite possible to employ passionate progressive arguments without the negative aspects of zealotry. More progressive women need to step up just as boldly—now.

See Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s new initiative to get more women into politics. But which women?  YouTube Preview Image

Because with lockstep “just say no” partisanship on the Republican side as the new normal and Democratic leaders too often supinely begging for crumbs of compromise, talk of bold change on the progressive side has gone mute. Yet small ideas will never be able to increment the nation’s economy into a future that’s emerging faster than Andrew Breitbart can whip up the blogosphere to bring down a member of Congress who tweeted inappropriately—sex scandals being one of the few truly bipartisan endeavors. And, by the way, haven’t those guys all been, well, guys?

This is exactly the breech into which progressive women should step. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) took a stab at it and her vision, the Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act, substantively informed the president’s proposals. Feminist economists like Nancy Folbre have long advocated many of the ideas that the president has now urged Congress to pass.

For progressive women, seizing this opportune moment to assert our own authentic moral strength, strong language that inspires our base, and courage to advance bold policy initiatives is nothing less than a profound responsibility.

It’s time to pump up the passion and let it rip.

9/11 Victim Was Model for Ethic of Generosity

I received this inspiring letter ten years ago from a woman whose mother died on 9/11. America needs Valerie Hanna’s ethic of generosity today–read on:

On September 11, 2001, my mother, Valerie Joan Hanna, Senior Vice President, Technology, at Marsh and McLennan was killed on the 97th floor of tower One. She was a women’s right activist, who started as a single mom with two of her own, on adopted, and somewhere around 17 foster children over the years.

She worked her way up the corporate ladder, a key punch operator, hitting glass ceiling after glass ceiling, changing jobs often, moving on to companies with a higher glass ceiling, ending up as a Vice President of one of the largest multinational insurance firms.

We started with government cheese, but even as she earned more money, rather than living the “good life” she helped more people and children get out of poverty. She provided each of us with an education to each of our individual abilities.

She was a very staunch reproductive rights supporter. Thank you for the work you do.

In peace, Lydia J. Robertson

That Lydia took the time to write her letter to thank me took my breath away. So I called her to thank her.

She said she had written because she wanted to document how strongly her mother believed and passed along to her children that the ability to control one’s fertility and economic well being are inextricably linked. She very kindly allowed me to print her letter in the book I was writing at the time, Behind Every Choice Is a Story.

I’ve always been convinced of the power of story telling. Rereading Lydia’s description of her mother today, a few days after President Obama’s jobs speech, was especially moving. I’d like for the greedy opposition to “government cheese” or any kind of hand up to honor the memory of those who died on 9/11 by adopting Valerie Hanna’s spirit of responsibility and generosity.

Is Marriage Equality at a Tipping Point?

Tracy Baim Watching the historic June 24 vote that sealed the deal for New York to become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage was goose-bumpy exciting. In this guest post, journalist Tracy Baim speculates on whether New York represents a tipping point, as some have speculated.

While opposite-gender marriage slips into a minority percentage of the population, the movement for gay marriage equality shows no signs of slowing down.

The state of New York has joined a small number of American states, and a few nations such as Canada and South Africa, that allow for some form of government recognized marriage or civil unions between two people of the same gender.

Is the New York marriage law a tipping point on this issue? It certainly does represent a unique set of circumstances, where moderate Republicans were pressured to join the Democrats in passing a long-fought for civil right.

But many U.S. states still have their own Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMA) that will refuse to honor those out-of-state marriages, and the federal government has its own DOMA law cutting state’s marriage rights off at the proverbial knees. (Many significant benefits of marriage are actually federal, not state—social security, inheritance taxes, immigration rights, etc.)

While a few more states may eventually pass full same-gender marriage rights, it is unlikely to hit a critical mass or majority. Therefore, it is important that the marriage battle takes place on a federal stage. Congress is not expected to have the votes to overturn this law, so the best hopes are resting on the court system.

But because of the unpredictable nature of the U.S. Supreme Court on this topic, the court strategy is also no guarantee for marriage equality. Even if lower federal courts begin to overturn DOMA, the law could have strong conservative allies in the nation’s highest court.

President Obama, long an opponent of DOMA even if he personally has changed his mind on gay marriage several times, has ordered his Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop defending DOMA’s section that denies recognition of legally sanctioned same-gender unions in the states.

Obama and his team are walking in historic quicksand. While he said he is “evolving” on this issue, he in fact has a history of supporting gay marriage (in a 1996 survey to my newspaper, Outlines, which merged with Windy City Times in 2000). He later changed his mind, and now is hinting at a new evolution to come, likely in 2012 or after.

But regardless of what he says, Obama’s DOJ work against DOMA is the most important current battle against marriage inequality. If federal DOMA comes tumbling down in the courts, it will mean that people across the country will have at least some rights of marriage, because some states, like New York, Iowa and Massachusetts, do allow out-of-state residents to get married there. These couples will return home, in some cases to state DOMA laws, where they will continue the legal battle for full equality.

Thus, while the dominoes are starting to fall, they are often disconnected and therefore the “falling” is not uniform, or predictable. This means that many gay couples, legally married in the eyes of some governmental bodies, remain in an accounting and legal limbo.

This limbo will cost them time and money, and will continue to be an unfair burden based simply on the gender of the person they love.

Tracy Baim is publisher and executive editor at Windy City Times in Chicago. She is also the author of “Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage” (2010).

The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy is Powerful Women

You know how it goes: after all is said and done, a lot more is said than done most of the time. Goodness knows there was way too much said about the Weiner debacle last week. So I’m really happy to share a terrific guest post from Jodi Lustig who did something important. And she has other ideas about things to do and why we must do them–now. Enjoy.

Last Monday I took my own advice and went to The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy’s Annual Spring Breakfast. Eleanor’s Legacy is dedicated to supporting Democratic women candidates, voters, and activists throughout New York State; and there was an abundance of each present.
Continue reading “The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy is Powerful Women”

Nobel Laureates Fight Sexual Assualt

My grandmother used to say: “The rich suffer too but they suffer in comfort.”

Apparently for the wealthy deposed IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, suffering in comfort won’t come easy. He has been denied the right to live in one comfortable NY apartment after another as a consequence of his alleged sexual assault upon a hotel maid.

Without making judgments about “DSK” who will soon enough have his day(s) in court, I take this shunning as a positive sign that the world is awakening to the dirty big secret of sexual abuse, which is almost always perpetrated by men against women they perceive as less powerful than themselves.

As further proof of this awakening, this week, Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Mairead Maguire are leading a conference to addresses sexual violence in conflict regions at the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference. The conference is entitled Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict and includes over 120 leaders from around the world.

The highlight of the conference will be Thursday’s online day of action, which will seek to target governments and pressure them to give sexual violence the attention it deserves. The link provides several ways for women around the world to participate, and I would love to hear if any of you, Heartfeldt readers, take part.

I’m hoping that in light of the many kinds of sexual abuse, harassment, and just plain bad behavior that has dominated the media in the last few weeks, these influential Nobel Laureates will address a broader range of abuse issues than those that occur in areas of conflict, and will use their platform to connect the dots among the various ways sexual violence and harassment are used to maintain gender inequality.

You can also follow each day of this important event by following Feministe writer and author of Yes Means Yes, Jaclyn Friedman, as she live blogs about the event.

No one, rich or poor, should have to suffer the pain and indignity of sexual abuse.

Sex, Power, Irony, and Why Maria Shriver Will Be Back

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has put all his movie projects on hold, including one called “Cry Macho.”

Oh the irony of that title. Let me get him a hanky so Mr. Macho himself doesn’t douse those phallic cigars he puffs on with his tears.

There’s also a yummy irony in the fact that the woman who brought down this powerful man is near the bottom rung of social power, a household worker.  Sexual hubris and belief in their own entitlement to whatever they want whenever they want it, including women’s bodies, is a common thread between men like Schwarzenegger and the recently deposed International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also brought low by a domestic worker whom he apparently thought would be thrilled to be jumped on by a man twice her age leaping naked out of the bathroom.

Are these men like babies who think people can’t see them when they have blankets over their heads? And why don’t they understand that they can’t get away with the same bad acting they did a generation ago, thank goodness, because the women’s movement has changed both the culture and the laws?

There is certainly a qualitative difference between what seems to have been rape in the Strauss-Kahn case and what appears to have been consensual sex between Schwarzenegger and Mildred Patricia Baena who worked for 20 years in the home he shared with wife Maria Shriver. But who knows? The power differential between Baena and Schwarzenegger was inherently huge.

What strikes me as more puzzling, though, is that the power differential between Arnold and Maria was miniscule to nonexistent. She certainly didn’t need to be on the arm of any man in order to have money, prestige, or political power. As a member of the wealthy Kennedy political dynasty and a prominent journalist, she already had it all on her own.

And after the work she has done with her California Women’s Conferences to promote the idea that women are powerful, this betrayal is a terrible irony for her. Right now, the humiliation must be horribly painful. My heart goes out to her and to their children whose world has been turned upside down.

Still, I can’t get that video clip out of my mind—the one in which she so resolutely and convincingly defended her husband from a credible drumbeat of women’s claims that he had groped them YouTube Preview Image

Given the timing of the split, one can’t help but wonder what did Maria know and when did she know it, and if she knew any of it at all, why did she stay in the marriage.

To the positive, though, unlike Silda Spitzer and even Hillary Clinton, Maria Shriver isn’t standing by her man.  That alone is a step forward for womankind.

As the seasoned negotiators of SheNegotiates wrote in their blog,

If we do not retaliate for acts of aggression, we enter into a cycle of victimization. This is what happens to women who are cheated on over and over and over and over again if they forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive without ever taking proportionally retaliatory action when told one bright summer morning that their husband has been supporting the child he fathered with the household help for ten years.

Maria did the right thing. She packed her bags and left, leaving Arnold to his own devices and, one assumes, to contemplate what the poorly timed release of this information might do to any man’s future political career in any state other than California.

Shriver is likely to go through a great deal more public humiliation and pain before this is over. Who knows what Baena will do or say? And look, that child is her children’s half-brother. Who knows what that will mean to her family?

One thing is quite clear however. The outdated dominance model of power exemplified by Schwarzenegger’s behavior–the power over others—is passe. Maria has in her hands the more positive model, her power TO–the ability to accomplish great things for herself, her family, her country, the women of the world—as she makes the transition into whatever is next for her.  It’s the very transformational model of power she herself lauded in her recent blog post, Is the Model of Masculinity Changing in America?

My advice to Maria Shriver, were she to ask, is to use what she’s got (No Excuses power tool #3): the sympathy and support of her friends and family, the platform she has built for herself as a champion for women, her celebrity and media credentials, and the financial capability that will enable her to do whatever she chooses with the rest of her life.

In the end, Maria Shriver will have a brilliant future.  She will be back.

Hasta la vista, Arnold.

Wear jeans for more than comfort

Did you know that today you can turn your favorite pair of jeans into a powerful statement against sexual assault? That’s because today is Denim Day, part of the week-long Sexual Assault Week of Action being observed across the globe.

Denim Day was started in response to a 1998 Italian Parliament decision overturn a rape conviction because the victim was wearing tight jeans at the time of her assault. Believe it or not, the court’s official statement on the case read: “it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them.”

It’s no wonder that the decision prompted an international movement. By the next year Denim Day was observed in California, and has grown to be a worldwide protest against victim blaming and rape apologism.

The movement is yet another example of the power of feminist activism. Visit the site to learn how you can get involved.

Be sure to check out the wonderful poet and musician Brooke Elise Axtell telling her personal story and why she is committed to nurturing healing through feminist leadership as she speaks on Fox TV in Austin TX.

I am wearing jeans, what about you?

Thank you, Geraldine Ferraro (1935—2011), First Female Major Party VP Candidate

“If we can do this, we can do anything.” –Geraldine Ferraro, accepting the Democratic Party nomination for vice president in 1984

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Geraldine Ferraro’s place in history is assured. The smart mouthed tough talking Queens Congresswoman tapped to be Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate shattered a particularly stubborn glass ceiling. As I mourned her passing following a valiant 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, I found myself watching her acceptance speech again, not with nostalgia but with celebration, appreciation—and a sense of urgency for the next generation of progressive women political leaders to step forward and continue her legacy.

In her speech, Ferraro told her American dream story–Italian immigrant father, widowed mother who worked long hours crocheting beads onto wedding dresses to give her children a better life—with the same rhetorical flourishes beloved by male candidates. But when she followed her opening salvo with a spontaneous “Whoop!” the cameras panned moist eyes of cheering, placard-waving women in the convention crowd.

Her not-so-subliminal message came through loud and clear. Though women had lost the ERA ratification battle just two years prior, our efforts to gain equality for women had won this significant consolation prize: the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.

I was tearing up at home in Phoenix, where I would soon have a chance to meet Ferraro at a packed fundraising event in a friend’s backyard. And so it went all around the country. She Negotiates founder Victoria Pynchon recalled why her tears flowed as she watched the convention from Sacramento CA:

Here I was. A practicing commercial litigator. And there Ferraro was. A Vice-Presidential candidate. It was exhilarating. Women were becoming a central part of the American story. That meant I was a part of it too. I hadn’t dreamed too big as my mother had warned me I had.

Carolyn Maloney, now the U. S. Congresswoman from Manhattan’s 14th district, was “an eager young delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention.” She said of witnessing Ferraro’s nomination, “It was absolutely electrifying. She changed my life and she changed the course of history.”

Done in by her men: The Mondale-Ferraro defeat

The euphoria didn’t last long. Ferraro had the audacity to think she would be treated as a person separate from her husband. She acknowledged later that she had been ill-prepared for the sexist media treatment she would encounter. “The promise of our country is that the rules are fair,” she had opined in her speech. So when the Republicans went after her because her husband hadn’t released his tax returns after she had promised he would, she quipped, “You know those Italian men,” and thought that would take care of it. Instead it unleashed a flood of additional attacks on her qualifications; that threw her onto the defensive for the rest of the campaign.

Many would try to blame her rather than her presidential candidate running mate, the solid statesman but uber-boring Walter Mondale, for Ronald “morning in America” Reagan’s landslide victory that November. While it’s doubtful that anyone could have defeated the personable (and popular despite his reactionary economic and anti-woman social issue positions) incumbent, Mondale clearly wasn’t up to the task.

Not one to give up, Ferraro, later ran for U.S, Senate twice, in 1992 and 1998. She lost both races. She served in the Clinton Administration as ambassador to the U.N.Human Rights Commission. Late in 1998 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Determined to keep working even through chemotherapy treatments, she did business consulting and media commentary, and campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton in 2008. I often saw her at political gatherings but my last encounter with her was at an informal dinner at a friend’s home where her passion for making a difference through the political process came through as strong as ever in the heated conversations about the race that was by that time a shoe-in for Barack Obama.

In this video interview for the New York Times, Ferraro looks back at the ups and downs of her life and what her groundbreaking accomplishments have meant for society.

Coincidentally, the day Ferraro died, a vigorous conversation was occurring on the 9 Ways blog about whether it’s incumbent on women to support women candidates. The consensus was that women have a responsibility to support those female candidates who support policies that advance women and women’s equality.

No question, Ferraro fit that description.

Today, I join millions of Americans in saying, “Thank you, Gerry, for standing in your power and walking with intention toward a better, and someday an unlimited future for women.“

“If we can do this, we can do anything,” just as she said. But here’s the urgency: we will do so only if we women make a conscious, concerted decision to walk through the doors that Geraldine Ferraro’s courageous bid for the vice presidency pushed open for us. That would be the best, most fitting tribute of all.