Tests for Sexism

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With all the claims (some probably true and some probably not) of sexism in people's responses to Sarah Palin, I've been thinking about a common sort-of-intuitive quick test for sexism that I've been seeing a lot lately.

One kind of evidence for a claim that sexism is taking place involves asking whether the same question or comment would be said if it were a man. The idea is that it's sexism if no one would say the same thing of a man in the same position, which means the treatment is purely based on her being a woman. There's one obvious problem with this kind of test. I would be very unlikely to say that my friend John is in the women's room when he goes into a public restroom, but I might easily say it of my wife. That's clearly not sexism, though. So the proper test needs to distinguish between things that would be appropriate to say of a woman that you wouldn't say of a man. The issue then becomes which ways are appropriate to treat women differently from how you treat men. That, of course, is a matter of disagreement between various people, and thus this test is hardly independent of moral views. So measuring sexism this way depends on what your larger moral picture is.

For example, there are those who thinks mothers and fathers generally bring different things to parenting, and thus (other things being equal) they would prefer that if one parent stays home with the kids that it be the mom. Some takes this to the more extreme view that the mom just ought to stay home without the "other things being equal" qualifier. Then there are those who think there's no moral reason to prefer either parent (and I've never met anyone claiming that we should prefer it be men, but that view is logically possible and might well be held by some feminists who seek to equalize men and women in every way).

These views would say very different things about a claim that a woman ought to do what she can to be the stay-home parent. Some will find it sexist, based on their background moral picture. Others will not. I think this is why some people have a hard time recognizing sexism that others see. It's very difficult to find a morally inappropriate expectation when your own moral view actually requires that expectation or at least sees it as worth trying for if other things are equal. (I should say, though, that it's hard to see a typical liberal using this response appropriately against typical conservatives, because typical liberals have a much larger set of things that they consider sexist than the typical conservative does, not the smaller set that this response assumes.)

One problem with this test is that it often involves unprovable hypotheticals. Someone will assert that no one would treat someone in Sarah Palin's position but a man the way they're treating her. In some cases, such a claim is obvious. You don't see male politicians being called anything on the order of Barbie or being talked about as a sex object the way Palin regularly is, and not just by extremists and uneducated scum. It's by highly educated scum like newspaper columnists and Obama activists in the professional class. But other claims are pretty hard to test. It's not easy to find someone with exactly her level of qualifications, some of which are quite unusual, so it's hard to test the claim that a man in her exact position wouldn't be treated exactly as she has been treated. We aren't going to find men being the first GOP VP nominee, for instance, and we aren't going to find men among the rest of McCain's shortlist, which was all men besides Palin (and according to one report was all men period, with Palin brought in because McCain was really unhappy with something about each member of the shortlist, and he decided she would be a better choice than any of them). So that's at least a caveat. I'm not a big fan of untested and untestable hypotheses with huge inferences with moral implications resting on them that nonetheless have alternative explanations that don't have the same morally tinged accusations as a result. But I think this worry manifests itself more strongly in racism charges than sexism charges, and I think there are enough instances of this test operating with observable facts about how, for example, male politicians aren't made sex objects, that I think it's still a useful test if you don't succumb to a too-easy acceptance of hypotheticals.

An interesting objection to some applications of this test for sexism is to find an instance of a case where the statement is said of one woman but not of another. For instance, consider the following statement:

Absolutely, and this is what I want women to know, so they recognize the value of their own path, their unique experience. I've been in politics a while, ... and this is a very rough-and-tumble.... I shouldn't say 'rough,' let me say a very challenging arena to be in. But as challenging as it is, nothing is as challenging as raising a family -- nothing. That experience forced me to be disciplined, diplomatic, focused, and successful, and I brought that discipline and focus to [my political career]. Also, having a family keeps you focused on the future, which is the biggest inspiration in politics. In order to do what it takes to succeed in politics, you have to be inspired by your constituents, the power of your ideas, and the fact that you speak on behalf of children and their future, whether you have children of your own or not. It makes all the difference in the world...."

Look at the first bunch of comments here. Almost everyone assumed the quote was something Sarah Palin said to justify her qualifications for vice-president, and they jumped on it. No one had this response that I know of when the statement was actually made by Nancy Pelosi on the occasion of her becoming Speaker of the House. Once it was clear that Pelosi had said this and not Palin, the commenters changed the subject to point out that Pelosi had more time in politics at the national level than Palin does and that her kids were all older when she first ran for office, without confronting the fact that Pelosi had said that raising a family provides more experience than any other thing in life and can provide all that is necessary to succeed in politics. The difference in experience between the two is real, and the difference in family status is real. But what Pelosi actually said would apply to Palin regardless of those two facts if it's true, so the differences being pointed out for different treatment don't justify different treatment. If Palin is unqualified, then Pelosi overstates the value of the experience of raising a family. No one criticizes her for that, and the reason is supposed to be that her kids were older when she started politics and that she had other experience? It wouldn't make her statement more true, since the statement doesn't take those things into account.

So there's some kind of double standard here, but it's not a double standard according to sex. It's something else. But I want to say that a double standard between two women doesn't mean the standard as applied to one isn't sexist. If Palin isn't given the same treatment as Pelosi, and it's because of a merely political preference for Pelosi (which it may not always be but probably is in some cases), then one explanation for that would be that Pelosi gets treated the way women should be treated but that a sexist standard is applied to Palin. There's some reason other than sexism at work, or the sexist standard would be applied to both or neither. But combine the sexist standard with a reason for excusing Pelosi from the standard, and it's still sexist. It's the sort of thing that wouldn't be said of a man with young children with less time spent in politics at the national level (e.g. Bobby Jindal, who I doubt as many people would have raised the same concerns about with experience, and no one would have said he couldn't do the job because of his family because his three kids are all under seven). So it's sexism, but it's inconsistently applied sexism.

I don't have any one particular point that I was trying to make with this post, just a few scattered thoughts that I wanted to organize a bit better about complicating factors in this way of trying to demonstrate sexism.

1 Comments

What, no debate live-blogging?! I'm let down. I'd give it 53/47 Obama/McCain for the undecided viewer. What do you think?
-Steener

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