When my daughter was young I became an adult scout leader and so I was literally a card-carrying member of the Girl Scouts. So although I am male I like to think that there have been times in my life when I could play the Woman Card.
This election season we have been hearing a lot about this elusive woman card. Two candidates locked in a fierce presidential election contest. One is accused of playing the woman card, the other accused of playing the man card.
To make matters worse, in the middle of this conflict some state legislatures have been passing laws suggesting that every one of us needs a bathroom ID card. Birthers hounded the president for years to produce his birth certificate – now all of us may have to produce a birth certificate just to go to the bathroom.
So this morning I want to speak about the woman card, the man card and the bathroom ID card, in that order.
First the woman card: I was a college exchange student in Manchester, England, in the years 1986-87. This means I was there while Margaret Thatcher was running for re-election as Prime Minister of Great Britain in her role as the leader of the Conservative Party or the Tories.
So I lived through Margaret Thatcher’s campaign for Prime Minister and now I am experiencing Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President and this morning I want to share some of the ways I think gender plays a role in elections regardless of whether the candidate is liberal or conservative, left or right.
I’ll admit that it has been something of a struggle for me to come up with the perfect words to describe the challenges faced by both, Clinton and Thatcher, the conservative and the progressive. So I posted a question n the Unitarian Universalist Minister Association Facebook Group, “Does anyone know a more diplomatic way to say the following sentence, ‘I’ve seen both women endure an unrelenting testosterone driven sh#%t storm’.” Not a single Unitarian Universalist minister could think of a better sentence so there it is – without ministerial refinements.
Margaret Thatcher was Tory, a true conservative. In the late 80’s I was a young man who agreed with the liberation theologian Oscar Romero who said “the heart is a little bit to the left.” Some of my friends might have said my heart was so far to the left that it was having an out of body experience.
Even so, I came to have a lot of admiration for the Iron Lady of the right. I even bought and read her collected speeches as a sort of souvenir for that time in my life. Let me share with you one statement that I underlined in her book.
“There is a temptation, not easily resisted, to identify our opponents with the Devil, to suggest that politics presents us with a series of clear and simple choices between good and evil, and to attribute base motives to all who disagree with us. These are dangerous …tendencies; they embitter politics and trivialize religion and morality.
So with this thought in mind let me say that my goal this morning is to try to reflect on gender issues without adding any more bitterness to our politics, as our politics already seem bitter enough, or trivializing spirituality or morality to which you may be thinking, “Good luck with that.”
This morning I want to speak particularly about misogyny, which the dictionary defines as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” Here is what I’ve learned by observing both Thatcher and Clinton. While disagreements are common in politics, and in an age with greater opportunity, public disagreements between male and female leaders are to be expected there are still some clear signs when debate disintegrates into misogyny.
If you compare a female opponent to a barnyard animal you might be a misogynist. If in the process of disagreeing with someone you call her a dog, a fat pig, a disgusting animal you might be a misogynist. In the 80’s the most common insult hurled at Thatcher was that she was “a bloody stupid cow.” I heard this so often that I assumed the term must not be as insulting as it sounds, at least in the English context (after all everything sounds more civilized in an English accent.) Later I would learn that yes, the term is exactly as insulting and pejorative as it sounds.
You might be a misogynist if in the midst of civil discourse about a political topic you find yourself referring to an opponent as a witch or by another word that rhymes with that word, another animal term. Once again, the goal is to move away from policy differences and into name-calling in order to delegitimize and dehumanize your opponent, to objectify her, to place her among the category of things not people, things that are not equal and things that do not deserve respect. I’ve heard many of these terms hurled at both Clinton and Thatcher.
Here is an example of something that is slightly different. Last week a male state representative filed a complaint against Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell. Both he and she are Republicans. In his complaint he stated, “Her leadership has become unpredictable and vindictive, while her ability to make rational decisions has become severely unstable and are influenced by her temperamental state of mind.”
Now let me ask you a question, “Is that statement sexist or does it just sound sexist?” Is it a pure coincidence that it contains every known condescending thing men have ever said about women throughout the history of the Western World that women are irrational, vindictive, unpredictable, temperamental. And that’s before you even know the substance of the complaint, which includes the leadership role Beth Harwell played in ousting another representative with a well-known history of sexual harassment of women.
So when any woman is accused of playing the woman card, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, we already know that the deck is stacked against her. It is true of the contest between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, or in other contests that are lesser known or less widely publicized.
So let’s talk about the man card. And let me make this as simple as possible, when man accuses a woman of playing the woman card you can be pretty sure he is playing the man card.
When you say that a woman doesn’t look like a President or a Head of State in this country then you are playing the man card because America has never had a woman president. However, if you go to Argentina or Iceland or Israel or Pakistan or the Philippines or Germany or Ireland or Sri Lanka or Finland or Indonesia or Liberia or Chili or Argentina or Lithuania or Costa Rica or Brazil or Croatia or Nepal or Taiwan or Malawi or Kosovo or South Korea or Great Britain or any number of other countries you will discover there are people on earth who have demonstrated that they can look at a woman and see a President.
This past week I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s The Hidden Brain with the title “Our Politics, Our Parenting,” which was forwarded to me by Andreas Bastias. The blurb for the episode reads, “In the midst of a rancorous election, we present a new theory to explain why the two sides of the aisle seem irreconcilable.”
This podcast drew from the research of George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind and other books. Lakoff suggests that we get our ideas about the government of the nation from how we see our families governed. He identifies two common patterns of family management and governance. There is the strict parent model of family government and there is the nurturant parent model.
This difference in many but not all families is the difference between mom and dad. So while it would be more accurate to speak of the strict parent and the nurturing parent, for the purposes of this sermon (during this particular election season) I am going to be speaking about the strict father and the nurturing mother.
In the strict father family the world is seen as scary, dangerous and unfriendly place and for that reason the strict father is the dispenser of tough love. This model of parenting can be summed up in the name of 50’s TV show Father Knows Best, the father knows right from wrong, good from evil. Obedience and loyalty are a virtue. The role of the father is be a protector who offers security from danger, safety in the storm of life. In this world competition is good because competition makes us stronger and better prepared for the rigors of a perilous world. The strict father teaches his children to be tough, self-reliant and strong because it would be wrong to send them out into the world without the skills they need to survive and thrive.
In the nurturing mother family the parent brings empathy, understanding and listening to the role of family governance. To love and nurture is what it takes to help children grow up and become the best possible person they can be. In the nurturing mother family there are more dialogues and fewer monologues. The goal is to create a family where people care for each other, nurture each other and support each other. In this family cooperation is good because it is through cooperation that we survive and thrive. The dominant theme is the ethic of care. The caring thing is the right thing.
Which brings me back to our current election; if you watched either of the two presidential debates it was not hard to see the clash between the strict father and the nurturant mother so much so that here in the United States we have good reason to feel like we are in a custody dispute between mom and dad. Our strict father and our nurturing mother are yelling at each other in the kitchen while we the children cower in the living room.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that this metaphor is perfect, or that these generalizations are without exceptions in this election or in others. In the contest between Margaret Thatcher and the Labor Party’s Neil Kinnock in the 1980’s it was Thatcher who was the strict parent and Kinnock who was the nurturing one; Thatcher who wanted to cut social spending and increase military spending and Kinnock who wanted to move toward disarmament and support the Welfare State. However, Thatcher was very careful to project political strength in ways that also reinforced her own genteel understanding of womanhood. Remember her last title was Lady Thatcher and as Lady Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady, if you have to go around telling other people that you are one then you aren’t.”
The 19th century Unitarian Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was often accused of being unladylike. She was called mannish because she loved to read and discuss the important issues of the day, challenging the gender norms of the time. She was told she was too masculine to be a lady but as she wrote, “Male and female, represent two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into each other…There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
In other words, Fuller is suggesting that on some level we are all transgender. Here is where we can learn something from the Taoist tradition that tells us to work for the balance of Yin/Yang, complimentary opposites, like male and female. Lao Tzu taught that strength with out gentleness becomes oppression whereas gentleness without strength becomes chaos and anarchy, so the goal in life is find a strong gentleness and a gentle strength.
I think our binary on gender is breaking down simultaneous with our binary in politics. This year I predict there will be many split tickets revealing that there are no wholly republican Republicans or purely democratic Democrats, no entirely green Green Party members or libertarian Libertarians. The idea of politics as a great dualism is breaking down making. Just as some identify as transgender many are starting to identify as trans-party politics.
So far we’ve talked about the man card and the woman card so it’s time for us to talk about the bathroom ID card. This election season has been marked by the effort of many different state legislatures passing or attempting to pass bathroom bills saying that people must use the restroom for the gender that is indicated on their birth certificate. Ostensibly, the argument goes that these bills are meant to protect women from predatory men who might otherwise lurk in the women’s room. However, now I am beginning to wonder if these laws are being pushed because there are some legislators worried about someone one new walking in the door and overhearing some of their locker room talk.
So why are our elected leaders targeting transgender people this election season and engaging in fear mongering. I think it is because, to paraphrase the philosopher Eric Hoffer, “you can win an election without a belief in God but you can never win an election without a belief in a devil.” This is something Margaret Thatcher also understood and cautioned us against. This year’s candidate for Devil is transgender people. But this tendency to identify anyone as the devil simply embitters our politics and trivializes our religion.
So having raised the issue let me assure you that when you leave this sanctuary at the end of the service you will not need your birth certificate to go to the restroom. We do not have anyone standing at the doors to check your bathroom ID card. So rest easy my friends.
Also I want to assure you that we as a church want to move beyond the politics of demonizing our neighbors. We will not fill our minds with ill will, bias, bigotry, objectification or hatred. Instead we will…
“Watch our thoughts, for they will become words. Watch our words for they will become actions. Watch our actions, for they’ll become habits. Watch our habits for they will forge our character. Watch our character, for it will become our destiny.”
If you’ve ever read her collected speeches then you know that Margaret Thatcher just got the last word. Yes, I just played the Woman Card.
(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 16, 2016)