Lost in the Magoo: Women and the Great Political Divide
The central character in "The Mr. Magoo Show" suffered from nearsightedness. In each episode of the 1960s television program, Mr. Magoo blinked rapidly and struggled to find his way out of his confusion. Mr. Magoo's failure to address his limitations was part of his charm.
However, being "lost in the Magoo" -- or, in more contemporary lingo, being dazed and confused -- is less entertaining when more is at stake. At a time when collaboration is at a premium with American voters, the ongoing face-off between conservative and liberal women serves no one well.
A December 23, 2011, USA Today survey reveals that more than 2.5 million voters have abandoned the Democratic and Republican parties since 2008, even as the number of those identifying themselves as independents grows. The trend cannot entirely be explained by what USA Today calls "voter disgust" (some voters disappear from the rolls because they move, die, or are deemed "inactive"), but anger, disillusionment, and frustration certainly play a part in the decision to break from establishment Democrats and Republicans.
Although the poll does not break down results by gender, one might assume that many of the voters turning their backs on partisanship are women. Quoted in the article, Gary Bartlett, the North Carolina elections director, joins other political pundits when he predicts that the winner of the 2012 presidential election will be "whoever is attractive to the unaffiliated voter."
In the current political climate, strict adherence to a political party's platform contributes to national nearsightedness and jeopardizes the election of a presidential candidate who values informed and reasoned debate. Women are among the independents or party moderates who have a distinct opportunity to build a bridge to somewhere.
As Sarah Palin states in the inspirational documentary "Fire from the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman" (2010), politics is supposed to be more than a "game of clashing parties." However, partisanship separates women from each other, even when they share common goals, including a commitment to social justice, religious institutions, family, equality, education, communities, children's rights, and careers.
Women pride themselves on engaging compassionately and productively with one another and encouraging harmony in their families, but decades of hostility regarding abortion, contraception, the Equal Rights Amendment, motherhood, reproductive rights, same-sex relationships, and other polarizing issues have taken their toll. Nonetheless, half of the population divided against itself cannot stand.
Political, religious, and social polarization obstructs progress. Women in the middle -- for example, moderate Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary but voted for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket in the presidential election -- often participate actively and passionately in the political process. Both political parties would profit from hearing their opinions.
Simply put, American women share common concerns. For example, conservative activist and author of Losing Our Religion, Dana Loesch argues in "Fire from the Heartland" that "motherhood is a political act." Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann states that education "changes you" and "shapes you forever." These passionate statements point to topics that demand a larger conversation about the future of America and its children.
Motherhood and education aside, women are in the front row in discussions about local, national, and global manifestations of misogyny. For example, women do not have to be Republicans to be horrified by the ways in which conservative women are targeted. When former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs parodied Sarah Palin by writing reminders on his hand before he answered a question from the press corps, moderates and independents were among those who cried foul. In his July 8, 2010, article "Democrats and Sarah Palin," Scott Payne writes:
Each time liberals like Robert Gibbs take a moment to mock the know nothingness of Sarah Palin, they reinforce a stereotype about what it means to be liberal to precisely the voters they have the hardest time reaching: the ones in the middle of the country. The 2004 second-term win of President George W. Bush demonstrated just how important those fly-over voters can be.
More important than Payne's reference to "liberals" are the references to voters "in the middle of the country" and to "fly-over voters" -- the mainstream Americans for whom meanness has fallen out of favor.
Women of all political and social persuasions also were among those who denounced the now infamous 2009 Playboy article entitled "The Top 10 Conservative Women We'd Like to Hate F**k." "We may despise everything these women represent, but goddammit they're hot," wrote columnist Guy Cimbalo. Editors did not delete the site before "Hate F**k Ratings" for Michele Bachmann, Amanda Carpenter, Pamela Geller, Mary Katherine Ham, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, Laura Ingraham, Megyn Kelly, Michelle Malkin, Peggy Noonan, and Dana Perino were widely forwarded.
In her July 3, 2010, Newsweek essay entitled "Too Hot to Handle: Stop Ogling Republican Women," Julia Baird joins those who publicly attacked the objectification of women in a supposedly post-feminist society.
Something pretty creepy has been happening to conservative women lately. There seems to be an insistent, increasingly excitable focus on the supposed hotness of Republican women in the public eye, like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Michelle Malkin, and Nikki Haley -- not to mention veterans like Ann Coulter.
Republican women are not the only ones fighting misogyny, nor are they the only ones who are objectified, as Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Elena Kagan, and others might attest. "It's odd to see how some men insist that when women start to grasp power, we should think of them primarily as playthings and provocateurs," writes Baird. "Is this the best way to explain their success?"
Driving wedges between women on the left and the right limits all women. When Ann Coulter describes the female pioneer spirit in "Fire from the Heartland," she celebrates the fact that American women were not then and are not now "delicate flowers." When Michelle Malkin argues in the same documentary that liberal feminists must give up their "slavishness to leftist ideology," she also suggests that divisive ideologies prevent us from developing encompassing ones.
Less helpful are comments by Phyllis Schafly, who states that "feminists have been a tremendously destructive force in our society" and that "feminism is based on the ideology of victimhood." With these statements in "Fire from the Heartland," Schafly dismisses the women's movement in its entirety and discredits even the role that it played in encouraging conversations about sexism. Women and men who consider themselves "feminists" will find it difficult to respond dispassionately.
In one of the most dramatic moments in "Fire from the Heartland," S. E. Cupp eloquently describes the emergence of Sarah Palin in words reminiscent of the rhetoric of the women's movement:
And here comes Sarah Palin, who built her way up from nothing, who got where she got on her own steam, who fought her way through the old boys network, who got herself an education, who got herself a job, [who] became the first woman governor of Alaska, the youngest governor of Alaska, and -- what? -- she didn't do it with the help of a rich daddy or a wealthy husband? -- she did it on her own?
Perhaps it is time for conservative, liberal, and moderate women to reclaim the best lessons of the women's movement and to risk engaging with one another. In America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag (HarperCollins, 2010) Palin acknowledges that the movement helped to make her choices possible, although she clearly believes that liberals propelled its agenda. Palin claims for herself -- as she should -- the role that she played in getting an education, making strong personal choices, and maintaining the optimism that draws so many to her. However, she also writes:
It surprises some people to hear that I consider myself a feminist. I believe both women and men have God-given rights that haven't always been honored by our country's politicians. I believe women and men have important differences, but those differences don't include the ability of women to work just as hard as men (if not harder) and to be just as effective as men (if not more so). I also consider myself a grateful beneficiary of the movement for female equality, particularly Title IX, the federal law that mandates equal opportunity for women in high school and college sports. So I proudly call myself a conservative feminist. One question liberal feminists would do well to ask themselves is why most American women today reject the label "feminist." (139)
A nation in crisis demands an ecumenical spirit. It may be time to abandon what are sometimes arbitrary litmus tests, seek common ground, and affirm a shared commitment to economic and social progress. Turning swords into plowshares requires patience and relentless commitment to a higher good, but without the effort, we remain "lost in the Magoo."
A professor of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Jan Whitt is the author of "Going (More Than) Rogue: Sarah Palin and the Pink Elephant in the Room."