In a perfect world, or even a fairly sensible world, gender wouldn't be relevant to politics in any significant way. We are all Americans, after all, and I remain unpersuaded that men and women have different interests as citizens: We are all affected by such issues as taxes, the state of the economy, war, crime, and terrorism.
Meanwhile, in the world as it is, the National Organization for Women's Political Action Committee endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun, the only woman in the race. Braun, whose odds of winning are roughly the same as those of an asteroid slamming into the earth and whose one term as US senator from Illinois was plagued by scandals, seems to have exactly one thing going for her: her gender.
On the other side of the political (and gender) divide, some conservatives are draping George W. Bush in a masculine mystique. In the September issue of The American Enterprise, the monthly magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, the president is hailed as a symbol of virility—a manly man in contrast to the allegedly effeminate Bill Clinton who, one commentator contemptuously points out, liked to jump rope with girls as a boy. (One might, of course, point out that Bush was once a cheerleader.)
And then there's the California recall race to replace Governor Gray Davis, dominated by the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger—who doesn't need anyone touting his masculinity because it would be redundant. Interestingly, despite his supermacho image, Schwarzenegger represents the wing of the Republican Party that is most sympathetic to women's rights. He is pro-choice and generally a moderate on social issues. His victory in California could give Republican moderates a major boost nationwide. Yet he has come under fire from feminists (in an odd alliance with some social conservatives) for his alleged sexism.
"Would you let your sister vote for this man?" screams a headline in a recent issue of Salon.com, the left-of-center online magazine. The article quotes activists from the California chapter of the National Organization for Women and from Feminist Majority, a Los Angeles-based national group, who lament Schwarzenegger's "disrespectful attitudes toward women" and his "appalling" use of "sexual stereotypes."
There is, of course, Schwarzenegger's now-infamous 1977 interview in Oui magazine in which the future gubernatorial candidate, then a 26-year-old bodybuilder, discussed his very active sex life in very crude terms—including group sex with a woman who supposedly strode naked into the gym where he trained. Whether he was just bragging (as he now claims) or telling the truth, the episode makes Schwarzenegger look rather piggish; but surely, there ought to be a statute of limitations on piggery.
As for the more recent offenses of which Schwarzenegger stands accused, his crime seems to be a lack of political correctness. In 2002, for instance, he told Esquire magazine that when you see a blonde with (to paraphrase euphemistically) a great figure, "you say to yourself, `Hey, she must be stupid or must have nothing else to offer,' which maybe is the case many times"—and that when the blonde has something smart to say, people are often shocked. Was this a demeaning comment that stereotypes and objectifies women? Actually, if you look at the context, it turns out that Schwarzenegger was using this example as an analogy to the way he has often been stereotyped and objectified as a muscular hunk.
Meanwhile, one of Schwarzenegger's Democratic rivals, wealthy ex-conservative Arianna Huffington, lambastes him for having an all-male team of economic advisers and wanting to leave California in the hands of a "boys' club." Huffington's own gender has been used against her, on at least one occasion, in a truly sexist way—ironically, by a woman and a feminist, law professor Susan Estrich, who lambasted Huffington as a bad mother for joining the gubernatorial race in disregard of her children's needs.
Huffington rightly decried this double standard in her campaign diary at Salon.com. Yet she herself proceeded to make an issue of her gender: "A woman governor, particularly one who is also a mother, would bring a whole different perspective to the problems facing California," she wrote. "My priorities would be the priorities a mother has for her children: a high quality education; affordable and readily accessible healthcare; and a safe, clean world to live in." Are we to think that men and fathers aren't interested in any of the above?
Maybe some day, we will live in a world in which the gender card is no longer played in politics. We've got a long way to go.