On Sunday in a New York Times editorial titled “The Mismeasure of Woman,” former Portfolio editor in chief Joanne Lipman — whose magazine folded six months ago, almost to the day – argued that women have been toiling under the collective delusion of progress. We have fooled ourselves by defining our gains “too narrowly.” We have focused on the “numbers at the expense of attitudes.” Lately, there has been a lot of noise about the Shriver Report, with its cheerful pronouncement that, in 40 percent of families, women are the primary breadwinners; about the “He-cession” that has hit men harder than women (hardly positive news, but certainly thought-provoking); about Pelosi and Clinton and Sotomayor and the 17 female senators and 74 women in the House. But none of that is indicative of the actual state of the female union, not when (as Lipman points out) Hillary Clinton can still be mocked for her “cankles” and Keith Olbermann can call Michelle Malkin “a big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.” “In recent years,” writes Lipman, “progress for women has stalled. And attitudes have taken a giant leap backward.”
Since the article published, Lipman has been taken to task for her tendentiousness and factual inaccuracies, for her “gratingly pompous” tone and “insanely massive overwhelming ego” — her ego, I have to confess, was refreshing — as well as her bizarre argumentative mash-up connecting 9/11 to the supposed flame-out of female advancement. (This argument, a colleague of mine pointed out, was first made by Susan Faludi, though I would say not very convincingly then, either.) But what of Lipman’s declaration that cultural attitudes toward women have regressed? Have they gone the way of the caveman in recent years?
It’s unlikely there’s a woman who writes for a living, or whose work has made her subject to public judgment of any kind — hell, it’s unlikely there’s a woman living in America today — who would argue with the assertion that the “conversation online about women” is “just plain ugly,” as Lipman writes. She tells readers that she has been called “a witch and a bimbo.” Most women, at some point in their lives, publicly or privately, have been insulted similarly, or worse. (When I wrote for Salon about my faulty iPhone, the reaction was overwhelmingly sexist, with letter writers calling me, in various colorful phrases, a dumb girl.) The Internet, of course, is a magnifying glass for all forms of vituperation, with bloggers and commentators drawing on a rich fund of misogynist language. And the sexist talk of male media personalities, including many of the supposedly liberal persuasion — Keith Olbermann and David Letterman and Chris Matthews and Bill Maher — is often shocking, especially when they are criticizing women reviled by their fellow liberals, like Michelle Malkin or Sarah Palin (or Hillary Clinton).
This sort of abuse needs to end. But are the attitudes on display new? Didn’t the Internet just provide a novel, free, easy-access, anonymous pasture for the age-old dinosaur of sexism to roam? Perhaps more to the point, do such attitudes, even if they are more public or available or distributable than they once were, indicate a corresponding stall-out of progress? Might they actually be a result of progress? During the presidential election, in an essay I wrote about Hillary Clinton, I argued that the success of her candidacy had brought long-latent fears about women and power to light. The criticism is loudest when the successor is approaching the throne. Seventy-seven cents on the male-earned dollar, or the dearth of women in corporate boardrooms, are indeed pitiful statistics, but I’m not sure they indicate backsliding, or even that progress has ground to a halt. What about the proliferation of feminist Web sites and mommy blogs? What about those women in Congress? What about all the “great news” with which Lipman opens her essay? The picture may not yet be rosy, but I’d still say we are inching along.
Lipman is right to argue for an overhaul of “popular perceptions” vis-à-vis women. In order for women to, well, progress there needs to be a change in the way we are perceived. But for this to happen, we must put an end to the notion that we are fundamentally different or “Other” — a few short steps to “inferior.” Tossing out Lipman’s own gender “exceptionalisms,” as Jezebel’s Anna North calls them, would be a start. Lipman tells us that women are risk-averse (and thus hesitate to ask for things, like raises), that they tend not to laugh at their mistakes, that they are “built to withstand hardship and pain,” and that they “are less likely to define themselves by their job.” I am a ninny about pain, and if I lost my job, my identity would suffer. I know I’m not alone. Friends who work as accountants and software executives and real estate agents in the Midwest, where I was raised — women who, unlike me, have children and houses and husbands — would feel the same. My mother, who runs a marketing company, tells me her female employees do in fact ask for promotions and raises, often with a greater sense of entitlement than the men. You might say that Lipman’s own attitudes about gender are as antiquated as the more poisonous ones she decries.