Not So Soft

One very, very common stereotype of women is that they are sweeter, nicer, and gentler than men.  I’ve learned through conversations on the topic that many people, including women, do not even understand this to be a problem.  Being nice is a compliment, right?  Sure, but not when it’s applied to all women as a generalization.

Michelle Cottle has a great article in the May 13,2009 edition of The New Republic called, “Pink Elephants,” about the “strange feminism of Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney.”  She writes:

“Forget civility and compromise: [Palin, Bachmann, and Cheney] stand out for their ability to rant, rave, name-call, fingerpoint, and peddle the most outrageous distortions in service to their cause.  (Death panels anyone?)  And none seems burdened by the reluctance to self-promote that so often undermines professional women.

…I cannot help but be impressed by – and even a bit grateful to – these conservative girls gone wild.  Say what you will about their ideology; these angry female fringe-dwellers are arguably doing more than anyone to tear down some of the most tiresome stereotypes about women in politics.

You know what I’m talking about:  Every few years someone writes a book, publishes a study, or simply drops a quote suggesting what a kinder, gentler, less competitive, more collaborative, less power-crazed, and fundamentally more ethical place Washington would be if only the gals were in charge.”

Unfortunately, this stereotype doesn’t just exist in politics.  I’ve heard it in law school, too, from both professors and classmates.  Would corporations be nicer to consumers, the environment, etc. if more women were in charge?  Would law firms be less competitive and provide better client services if more women were partners?  In a class in which U.S. v. Virginia was discussed, many classmates agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruined the Viriginia Military Institute (VMI) by requiring it to admit women because their presence would “feminize” (read: soften) the adversative methods of the Institute.  They did not use those words exactly, but the language in the case itself shows that was really VMI’s concern.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes:

“Virginia next argues that VMI’s adversative method of training provides educational benefits that cannot be made available, unmodified, to women.  Alterations to accommodate women would necessarily be ‘radical,’ so ‘drastic,’ Virginia asserts, as to transform, indeed ‘destroy,’ VMI’s program.  . . . Neither sex would be favored by the transformation, Virginia maintains: Men would be deprived of the unique opportunity currently available to them; women would not gain that opportunity because their participation would ‘eliminat[e] the very aspects of [the] program that distinguish [VMI] from . . . other institutions of higher education in Virginia.'”

Ginsburg answers Virginia’s arguments by pointing out that there is no proof whatsoever that VMI’s adversative method would suffer by admitting women, and that such arguments raised by Virginia are the same ones that are “routinely” used to deny women opportunities and equal rights, such as admission to practice in the professional fields of law and medicine.

Regardless of how Palin and Cheney feel about the decision in Virginia, they do seem to fight the stereotype of women advanced by Virginia in the case, and still believed by many in the legal profession.  And for that, I give them props.

“we learn America like a script



same thing

we bring

ourselves to the role…”

Not So Soft, Ani DiFranco



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3 responses to “Not So Soft

  1. c

    Though I enjoyed reading this post and found many of the points valid, the fact that Palin is held up as an example of feminine power and toughness is killing me softly.

    Other than that, I agree. My mother was adamant about us taking charge of ourselves. That we could do and be anything. That the idea of a ‘nice young lady’ is a way to control women. That being mannerful and kind is not exclusive to women. Being strong and powerful is not exclusive to men. She also taught us that we do not have to ‘be like a man’. We are women, but we are individuals, and can/will/must do as we see fit to have satisfying lives.

    • Thanks for your compliments. Your mother sounds a lot like my mother. Notions of “ladylike” and “manly” are social constructs that don’t actually mean anything.
      But, I agree: The fact that the women in the public eye most exemplifying this right now is Sarah Palin is unfortunate. It certainly doesn’t make me buy her arguments (if they can be called that) any more than I did, which was not at all.

  2. Jeremy

    VMI immediately did away with the buzz cut requirement for rats when women arrived. They immediately dropped the requirement that cadre members have passed all portions of the physical fitness test (they were worried that potential female cadre applicants would likely not have passed the pullup portion).
    Within two years of women arriving, the decades old tradition of rats crawling up “Break Out” hill was eliminated.
    Over the following decade, especially under General Peay, the Ratline was watered down (what VMI euphemistically calls the ongoing “professionalization” of the ratline).
    In 2008, after being threatened with yet another lawsuit (by the federal government – very same entity which said women could handle all aspects of the ratline), VMI lowered the physical fitness test standards for women.
    Women ruined VMI just as the they ruined West Point and Annapolis and the military in general.
    As for the fact that conservative women such as Palin and Bachmann are aggressive and manly, why is this surprising? This is the natural result of 50 years of effeminizing men. Modern America – where men are expected to be women and only women are allowed to be men. What a joke!

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