Cultural Animal

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Because She’s a Woman: Glass Ceilings, Female Politicians, and Hate Speech

Should loose talk of glass ceilings be considered hate speech?

Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin referred to their candidacies as breaking glass ceilings. Must we regard such remarks as male-bashing hate speech?

Now that both major parties have fielded major female candidates, this nonpartisan blog can say a few words about common concerns. One is sexism.

There has been talk of sexism by both parties and campaigns. The general thrust seems to be that if you vote against a female candidate, you may be a sexist. Or at least that sexism mainly operates to the detriment of the female politicians.

For the record, I have neither read nor heard any remark by any man saying that either candidate should be opposed because she is a woman.

In contrast, some of the enduring images from the primaries consist of various female voters saying right out on television that they supported Hillary Clinton for president "because she is a woman." (Hence the title of this blog.) I have not yet heard the same about Palin, but that may be because she has just started her time in the spotlight. In any case, such remarks suggest that sexist bias operates in favor of female politicians. In other words, we have explicit statements that people voted for Hillary, but no such evidence they voted against her, based on her gender. Thus, the only thing we know for certain about sexist bias is that she benefited from it.

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Supporting a candidate based on his or her gender is sexist, by definition. I don't see any way around that, unless you can concoct some bizarre definition of sexism that only refers to one sex. In other words, voting for Clinton because she is a woman is sexist, just as voting against her because she's a woman is sexist.

To be sure, it is entirely possible that some men (or women, for that matter) voted against Clinton and will vote against Palin because she's a woman and that they merely keep these motivations secret. Still, open statements are one strong form of evidence, and so far, they point to pro-female rather than anti-female bias. If people readily admit to pro-female sexism but conceal anti-female sexism, what does that say about our society and culture?

A relevant question is whether those who supported Hillary "because she is a woman" will vote for Palin for the same reason. Both candidates are women, obviously. So voting for someone "because she is a woman" should cause voters to switch from the Democrat to the Republican ticket. (I suspect the hope to pick up such votes was one strategic reason that McCain chose Palin as his running mate.) If women decline to switch from Democrat to Republican voters, perhaps they weren't as sexist as the media coverage led us to believe.

My focus today is on talk of glass ceilings. Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have spoken of their mission to smash through glass ceilings. How shall we evaluate such rhetoric?

The term "glass ceiling" was originally coined to refer to the lack of women in the top levels of corporate management. The glass ceiling explanation was that there was some objective barrier that prevents women from rising to the top. That barrier was an example of the dastardly workings of patriarchy, which is to say the system that men supposedly have set up to give themselves unfair advantages over women.

I have asked quite a few people what the phrase "glass ceiling" means to them. Some say that it refers explicitly to a conspiracy by men to hold women down. Others say that it may have some broader, vaguer meaning about unknown obstacles that hold women back. They acknowledge that a patriarchal conspiracy is one interpretation, but there might be others.

They were unfortunately rather vague about the other meanings. One person said it might be blocks in women themselves, such as lack of ambition or lack of confidence or simply just complacent laziness. I doubt that this is a common interpretation. When Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin spoke of "shattering the glass ceiling," do you think they meant overcoming their own laziness and complacency? Indeed, if the glass ceiling is understood as referring to factors within women themselves - unlikely, because the glass ceiling metaphor refers to an external obstacle that holds the woman down, not a flaw in herself that prevents her from rising - then alluding to it could be considered sexist bias against women.

Thus, one clear meaning of the glass ceiling is that men are conspiring together against women. This has been one of the themes of feminist rhetoric: Evil men oppress women. In order for women to rise to the top, they not only need to achieve like men do, but they also need to overcome the unfair efforts by men to hold them back.

In that interpretation, to say there is a glass ceiling is to accuse men of doing wicked things: of conspiring against women to keep them down. If men are actually engaged in such a conspiracy, then talking about it is a valid way of protesting injustice and promoting liberty. But if men are not conspiring and oppressing, then talk of glass ceilings is irresponsible accusation. It can even be regarded hate-mongering, in that it inspires negative feelings toward men, and unfairly so. At least, such speech is an attack on men, unless one has clear proof. Candidates (and others) who use the term "glass ceiling" should be required to furnish persuasive proof that men are indeed engaged in such a conspiracy.

Speaking of proof, the absence of women in top management and in other top positions is not itself proof of anything. As several of my colleagues have pointed out, there are multiple ways of understanding the lack of women at the top.

The question this blog asks is whether loose talk of glass ceilings should normally be considered a form of male-bashing or even hate speech. Is there a way we can understand mentions of glass ceilings wthat doesn't entail accusing men, perhaps unfairly, of wicked conspiracies? Should accusers such as Palin and Clinton be asked to provide proof to back up their allegations against men in general? Should men stand up for their own integrity by opposing politicians who make such irresponsible accusations and whose speech may inspire hatred toward men?

Also, it is clear that at least some people (both men and women) do understand the term "glass ceiling" in that hostile conspiracy, anti-male accusing sense. Do the candidates know this when they use the term? In today's American identity politics, the rules are usually that if anyone is offended by your speech, then you are assumed guilty of prejudice until you prove yourself innocent. Even saying that you meant no offense is often not enough, though if combined with a sincere apology and a promise not to repeat, it can sometimes be forgiven. So if female candidates speak of breaking glass ceilings and some people are offended, should the candidates be held responsible, or at least asked to explain themselves?

My own view is that throughout history, men and women have been more partners than enemies. Accusing one gender of evil, hostile actions and conspiracies is divisive. I wish both genders would be nicer to each other.

I am most interested in alternative interpretations. Readers, please say what the term "glass ceiling" means to you. Is there a plausible way to understand how people (including Palin and Clinton) can use the term "glass ceiling" without meaning to attack men or to criticize women? Either way, the term seems to contain sexist bias. Let me know how you understand it.

Now that both major parties have fielded major female candidates, this nonpartisan blog can say a few words about common concerns. One is sexism.

There has been talk of sexism by both parties and campaigns. The general thrust seems to be that if you vote against a female candidate, you may be a sexist. Or at least that sexism mainly operates to the detriment of the female politicians.

For the record, I have neither read nor heard any remark by any man saying that either candidate should be opposed because she is a woman.

In contrast, some of the enduring images from the primaries consist of various female voters saying right out on television that they supported Hillary Clinton for president "because she is a woman." (Hence the title of this blog.) I have not yet heard the same about Palin, but that may be because she has just started her time in the spotlight. In any case, such remarks suggest that sexist bias operates in favor of female politicians. In other words, we have explicit statements that people voted for Hillary, but no such evidence they voted against her, based on her gender. Thus, the only thing we know for certain about sexist bias is that she benefited from it.

Supporting a candidate based on his or her gender is sexist, by definition. I don't see any way around that, unless you can concoct some bizarre definition of sexism that only refers to one sex. In other words, voting for Clinton because she is a woman is sexist, just as voting against her because she's a woman is sexist.

To be sure, it is entirely possible that some men (or women, for that matter) voted against Clinton and will vote against Palin because she's a woman and that they merely keep these motivations secret. Still, open statements are one strong form of evidence, and so far, they point to pro-female rather than anti-female bias. If people readily admit to pro-female sexism but conceal anti-female sexism, what does that say about our society and culture?

A relevant question is whether those who supported Hillary "because she is a woman" will vote for Palin for the same reason. Both candidates are women, obviously. So voting for someone "because she is a woman" should cause voters to switch from the Democrat to the Republican ticket. (I suspect the hope to pick up such votes was one strategic reason that McCain chose Palin as his running mate.) If women decline to switch from Democrat to Republican voters, perhaps they weren't as sexist as the media coverage led us to believe.

My focus today is on talk of glass ceilings. Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have spoken of their mission to smash through glass ceilings. How shall we evaluate such rhetoric?

The term "glass ceiling" was originally coined to refer to the lack of women in the top levels of corporate management. The glass ceiling explanation was that there was some objective barrier that prevents women from rising to the top. That barrier was an example of the dastardly workings of patriarchy, which is to say the system that men supposedly have set up to give themselves unfair advantages over women.

I have asked quite a few people what the phrase "glass ceiling" means to them. Some say that it refers explicitly to a conspiracy by men to hold women down. Others say that it may have some broader, vaguer meaning about unknown obstacles that hold women back. They acknowledge that a patriarchal conspiracy is one interpretation, but there might be others.

They were unfortunately rather vague about the other meanings. One person said it might be blocks in women themselves, such as lack of ambition or lack of confidence or simply just complacent laziness. I doubt that this is a common interpretation. When Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin spoke of "shattering the glass ceiling," do you think they meant overcoming their own laziness and complacency? Indeed, if the glass ceiling is understood as referring to factors within women themselves - unlikely, because the glass ceiling metaphor refers to an external obstacle that holds the woman down, not a flaw in herself that prevents her from rising - then alluding to it could be considered sexist bias against women.

Thus, one clear meaning of the glass ceiling is that men are conspiring together against women. This has been one of the themes of feminist rhetoric: Evil men oppress women. In order for women to rise to the top, they not only need to achieve like men do, but they also need to overcome the unfair efforts by men to hold them back.

In that interpretation, to say there is a glass ceiling is to accuse men of doing wicked things: of conspiring against women to keep them down. If men are actually engaged in such a conspiracy, then talking about it is a valid way of protesting injustice and promoting liberty. But if men are not conspiring and oppressing, then talk of glass ceilings is irresponsible accusation. It can even be regarded hate-mongering, in that it inspires negative feelings toward men, and unfairly so. At least, such speech is an attack on men, unless one has clear proof. Candidates (and others) who use the term "glass ceiling" should be required to furnish persuasive proof that men are indeed engaged in such a conspiracy.

Speaking of proof, the absence of women in top management and in other top positions is not itself proof of anything. As several of my colleagues have pointed out, there are multiple ways of understanding the lack of women at the top.

The question this blog asks is whether loose talk of glass ceilings should normally be considered a form of male-bashing or even hate speech. Is there a way we can understand mentions of glass ceilings wthat doesn't entail accusing men, perhaps unfairly, of wicked conspiracies? Should accusers such as Palin and Clinton be asked to provide proof to back up their allegations against men in general? Should men stand up for their own integrity by opposing politicians who make such irresponsible accusations and whose speech may inspire hatred toward men?

Also, it is clear that at least some people (both men and women) do understand the term "glass ceiling" in that hostile conspiracy, anti-male accusing sense. Do the candidates know this when they use the term? In today's American identity politics, the rules are usually that if anyone is offended by your speech, then you are assumed guilty of prejudice until you prove yourself innocent. Even saying that you meant no offense is often not enough, though if combined with a sincere apology and a promise not to repeat, it can sometimes be forgiven. So if female candidates speak of breaking glass ceilings and some people are offended, should the candidates be held responsible, or at least asked to explain themselves?

My own view is that throughout history, men and women have been more partners than enemies. Accusing one gender of evil, hostile actions and conspiracies is divisive. I wish both genders would be nicer to each other.

I am most interested in alternative interpretations. Readers, please say what the term "glass ceiling" means to you. Is there a plausible way to understand how people (including Palin and Clinton) can use the term "glass ceiling" without meaning to attack men or to criticize women? Either way, the term seems to contain sexist bias. Let me know how you understand it.

Roy F. Baumeister is Eppes Eminent Scholar, Professor of Psychology, and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University.

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