Obama, Gender Essentialism and Presidential Politics

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“Feminist Pitch by a Democrat Named Obama.”   That’s the headline of this article from today’s New York Times.   Here’s an excerpt, describing Senator Obama’s pitch to women in early-voting states:

The breakthrough nature of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy has a powerful appeal for many women * * * The politics are complex; even as rival campaigns seek to peel away women’s votes from Mrs. Clinton, they are often careful to acknowledge and pay tribute to the broader significance of her candidacy….[Obama made] the case that the candidate’s sex is not, and should not, be the deciding factor. Women, he said,”can look at a whole series of issues and know, ‘You know what? This guy’s going to fight for us, partly due to biography.’ Because I know what it’s like to be raised by a single mom who’s trying to work and go to school and raise two kids at the same time, doesn’t have any support from the father. These are issues I’m passionate about.”

Moreover, he argued, his leadership offers the best prospects for delivering on that agenda. * * *

Kate Michelman, a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign and a longtime abortion rights leader, said she told women that Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy was historic and exciting, and that”we have spent a long time and traveled a long road to get to this point.”But she added,”That doesn’t bring us to the place where gender becomes the only thing or even the most important factor determining our decision.”  

This week the Obama campaign held a wave of house parties focused on women in early voting states; Mrs. Obama bluntly told 700 women activists linked by conference call Wednesday night,”We need you guys.”

Huh?   I agree with Michelman that gender is not the most important factor in a Presidential election.   The days of unqualified gender essentialism are long past (if they ever existed at all).   But Michelle Obama should know better.   Figure of speech or not, candidates and their spouses should not refer to women as “guys.”  

Hat tip: Darren Rosenblum.

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Obama, Gender Essentialism and Presidential Politics

  1. schraubd says:

    I’ve always been a bit confused about what the feminine equivalent of “guys” is. “Gals”? Makes me sound like a cowboy. “Girls”? These folks are adults.

    I’ve actually settled on “guys” being gender-neutral at this point, albeit mostly because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    One alternative is “folks.” Another, that we Southerners specialize in, is “y’all.”

  3. umlawgirl07 says:

    I know many people opt for the usage of “guys” as gender-neutral. I don’t. I think guys has been commonly used that way, but it is NOT gender neutral. Its usage sends its own message, imho. I agree with Ann – in particular, having spent half my life in the South, I like y’all (pronounced yawl).

    What would have been wrong with her saying “We need you women”?

  4. schraubd says:

    I guess those would work, though I wonder if there aren’t geographical differences. I’ve picked up y’all, but it’s not native for me — I got it from spending a lot of time in Virginia (I’m from Maryland, which is just across the linguistic border I think). With folks, I use it, but as a less common synonym for “guys”. It sounds a bit, if you will, “folksy”, whereas “guys” is just plain informal.

    So perhaps “guys” has evolved into a gender-neutral form where there aren’t obvious alternatives, and where there are those alternatives, it maintains its gendered tilt.

    “We need you women,” incidentally, sounds very formal to me for what Michelle Obama was saying.

  5. Ann Bartow says:

    “Guys” may seem gender neutral to you, but it sure doesn’t to me. If you don’t want to adopt an alternative, that’s your call, but I don’t think I’m the only person who gets annoyed by “guys” as yet another unnecessary manifestation of the whole “male as default” linguistic paradigm.

  6. Bridget Crawford says:

    For me, “guys” is a verbal tic that comes out when I speak quickly or informally. It is not gender-neutral; “you” is gender neutral.

    Michelle Obama should have said, “We need you,” and left it at that.

  7. Ann Bartow says:

    Bridget, you need to come South so you can learn y’all. And I know a certain law school that would love to hire you, at least if I had anything to say about it! :>)

  8. schraubd says:

    I’m not wedded “guys”, Professor Bartow — if it annoys my female peers to use it when referring to them, that’s reason enough to jettison it. I’m just trying to distill down the split in opinion that seems to have developed (possibly — though I don’t know — along regional lines).