Thoughtless words imperil male politicians.
In a ham-handed effort to calm nerves about the risks of Ebola, President Barack Obama last week recounted his trip to a hospital that had treated some Americans with the disease. “I shook hands with, hugged, and kissed — not the doctors — but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work that they did,” he said.
Apart from the inadvisability of his actions, why would Obama hug and kiss nurses but not doctors? The implicit reason, of course, is a stereotype: Nurses are women and doctors are men. And why hugs and kisses for women and not men? It reflects the sexist way we greet professionals by their gender: handshakes for men, kisses for women.
Examples of sexist language and behavior by male politicians are easy to find.
Last month, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker called Fox reporter Sharman Sacchetti “sweetheart.’’ Even though he apologized immediately, that one word got him in big trouble, read by some as Baker’s take on all women, feeding into the “war on women” trope that Democrats have eagerly promulgated about the GOP.
Earlier this year, then-attorney general candidate Warren Tolman pushed back against his primary opponent Maura Healey, calling her aggressive questions of him “unbecoming.” Last year, Obama got heat for referring to California Attorney General Kamala Harris as “by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” In 2010, majority leader Harry Reid spoke about New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “We in the Senate refer to (her) as the hottest member,” he told a crowd.
For the most part, these words mean little. Baker’s professional record suggests he is more than comfortable working with high-powered women. So too, Obama’s stands on issues such as equal pay speak far louder than the occasional stereotypes his words convey. And many — including many women — defend public comments about a woman’s pulchritude, thinking the brouhahas they provoke are overblown and that comments about someone’s looks should be seen as a compliment and nothing else.
Still, as politicians perhaps know better than most, words can have enormous power. They can inspire and they can hurt, and sexist language uttered by public figures in particular can be especially hurtful.
The English language itself is partly to blame, making it easy to get tripped up. There are the unnecessary distinctions, for instance: “waitress” and “actress”, when “waiter” and “actor” would be fine. We grapple with gender-denominated nouns. The male head of a committee is a “chairman” while people aren’t sure what to call a woman in the same position (“madam chairman”?). We still haven’t figured out singular pronouns when gender is unclear, substituting the ungainly “they.” And the meaning of words can change rapidly. In the military, “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” is a crime, hardly a slur against women. But in a political debate, apparently, “unbecoming” can be read as one.
But the other fault is a failure to distinguish between the personal and the professional. Many of the examples above are easy to dismiss as innocuous — grating to some ears perhaps, but nothing of real substance. Yet as almost every woman could doubtless testify, even seemingly innocuous comments, repeated over and over, can build to something significant. “Sweetheart,” “hot,” or “best-looking” are OK and even welcomed by friends and lovers, but in the professional realm they jar, reducing women to those terms only. So too, greeting women with a hug but reserving handshakes for men also promotes an unwarranted distinction. (Better, perhaps, would be to emulate the French: hug and kiss for everyone.)
Granted, the entry of women in the work world is still a relatively recent phenomenon; it wasn’t too long ago that the employment sections of newspapers used to advertise “jobs for men” and “jobs for women.” The world is changing rapidly and it’s hard to keep up with new language and changing mores. Still, politicians — male politicians in particular — need to school themselves better and watch more carefully the words they use. A basic rule: If you wouldn’t say it about a man, then don’t say it about a woman — and vice versa.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on October 21, 2014.