3 Assumptions to Avoid Making about Women this Election Season
Politics are nearly unavoidable this time of year. In the last few months, the GOP and Democratic candidates have spoken at rallies, held town halls, and participated in debates (sometimes not so well). Amidst the political scene, I often find myself in discussions with friends and colleagues about who’s said what and the extent to which we agree. In these conversations there inevitably comes a moment where some form of criticism is brought against a candidate. Perhaps not surprisingly, some reproach is often directed toward one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, on several occasions a male in the group, gesturing in my direction, will suddenly rein in their criticism of Clinton with, “Oh—sorry, no offense.”
This does not offend me. Often their arguments are well reasoned and to my mind make no personal attacks. Why then, would they think I might be offended? While my own work has considered Clinton as a case study to examine issues of identity and representation in the media, more often than not the people from whom these statements come are not aware of that fact. So what is it? Why do they assume I would be offended?
Without realizing it, assumptions like these are frequently made in political and everyday discourse—particularly in relation to women. Interactions such as the one described above represent just one instance where the taken-for-granted can cause confusion, and sometimes disagreement. In this presidential election, it’s difficult to go a day without hearing something about who I should vote for, so I’d like to break down a few assumptions that are often made about female voters:
1). As a woman I am more likely to be offended by the criticism of other women.
Perhaps the most implicit assumption in the exchange mentioned above is that I would be offended by the criticism of another woman because I am a woman. Even though at the time my peers’ criticism had more to do with their perception of Clinton’s political viability than her gendered identity, they may have assumed that suggesting Clinton (who happens to be female) is not a viable leader also implies I am not capable of being in a position of power. Essentially, they believe any criticism against one woman is criticism against all women.
2). As a woman (and feminist) I should vote for the female candidate.
Speakers identifying themselves with an audience is nothing new in rhetoric. But what is striking about this assumption is that without even drawing upon instances where Clinton has tried aligning herself with female voters (–employing what James Boyd White calls a type of constitutive rhetoric), people assume that because Clinton and other women share the same gendered identity they also share the same ideological precepts. That is not to say women may not share the same beliefs as Clinton—certainly many do, but to say that I will vote for a female candidate solely because she and I share the same gender is misguided, to say the least. Further, it is assumed that because Clinton is a woman she will be the best advocate for defending my rights as a woman.
To the bit about identifying as a feminist, this statement assumes that a female candidate is automatically the most qualified individual to support feminist appeals. Deeper still, beneath this premise also lies the implication that only women are feminists. Au contraire: men can be too!
And last but not least…
3). As a (young) woman I should support Hillary Clinton.
Last week in New Hampshire former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright spoke at a rally for Clinton. Among the accolades, she declared that young women have to support Hillary Clinton and to “Just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” You can watch a clip of her speech here. On their own these statements may not carry that much weight, but when taken together deliver a lethal 1-2 punch: first, that I need to vote for Clinton because of my age and gender, and second that if I don’t vote for Clinton I have committed a sin and don’t support other women. In other words, because Clinton is a woman and I am woman, voting for her will show my support for all women. This notion of ‘women helping women’ is a dominant rhetorical strategy in current politics, and a tricky one too chiefly because it is difficult to argue against. After all, as woman, why would I want to be against other women?
Albright has since apologized, calling it an “undiplomatic moment.” Yet, there’s still a lot at stake when these assumptions are made: women actually lose power, credibility, and positions as freethinking, autonomous beings. They also needlessly threaten to halt any deliberative discussions about how to achieve a mutually desired goal. In the end, assumptions can be dangerous (and frustrating as hell), so let’s try to keep them to a minimum this time around.
If you want to know more:
- About argumentation, see Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric.
- To learn more about how a speaker identifies with the audience in order to reinforce commonly shared values, check out Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives. His work on Identification has been particularly influential in rhetoric.
- If you’re interested in reading more about constitutive rhetoric, check out James Boyd White’s article “Law as Rhetoric, Rhetoric and Law: The Arts of Cultural and Communal Life” in The University of Chicago Law Review