Let's Stop Using the Veneer of Feminism to Excuse Unacceptable Behavior

Cries of sexism around criticisms of Senator Amy Klobuchar's abusive management style are tired and misguided. We need to to talk about this in a smarter way.
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Senator Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign stop at the Marion County Democrats' soup luncheon at the Peace Tree Brewing Company on February 17th, 2019, in Knoxville, Iowa.

Senator Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign stop at the Marion County Democrats' soup luncheon at the Peace Tree Brewing Company on February 17th, 2019, in Knoxville, Iowa.

If you look closely at the accusations of sexism over criticisms of Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, you'll see straw men everywhere.

Before Klobuchar announced her presidential bid on February 10th, reports emerged in HuffPost and other outlets that the senator is well known, in Minnesota and on Capitol Hill, as an abusive boss. Klobuchar has reportedly become violent with staffers, throwing office supplies at aides, and has sabotaged staffers seeking better jobs. Naturally, this behavior was reported as a potential concern by many within mainstream and progressive media.

Some observers, though, argued that we shouldn't criticize Klobuchar's behavior because a male boss would be lauded for such aggression; therefore, to scrutinize Klobuchar for the same behavior is simply "sexist." As Laura McGann wrote for Vox: "The same kind of behavior that damages women can benefit a man. He's not a devil wearing Prada. He's a devil to admire." Liberal activist (and 2008 John McCain voter) Amy Siskind tweeted that any stories critiquing Klobuchar are "gendered bullshit." Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, wrote that, were a woman to hold her staff to the standard that some male politicians do, "she would be someone who was not able to stand on her own two feet without staff constantly holding her hand." These writers point to Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, and Donald Trump as men who have been praised for their aggressive or demanding or generally toxic behavior.

But—and I can't believe this needs to be said—the people praising these men for being uncouth are not the same progressives writing allegedly sexist critiques of Klobuchar. Which means that all the arguments above depend on a massive straw man. Anyone who genuinely believes that it would be fine for a man but not a woman to throw a binder at a staffer is a misogynist by definition. If we're interested in making progress, then we don't need to discuss such blatant misogyny as though it's an acceptable attitude; engaging that attitude to defend a public figure only further entrenches it.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a layer of sexism to the coverage of Klobuchar. Women are under more scrutiny than men, especially when they're in leadership positions. Social science has consistently supported this conclusion. Until 2017, Americans expressed a meaningful preference for male bosses. When female leaders make mistakes, people tend to be less forgiving. And women are still underrepresented in positions of power, making up only 23 percent of the latest Congress—a record high.

It's easy to default to assuming that criticism of a woman is sexist because it often is sexist; female journalists on Twitter face sexist harassment every day. When a fellow woman is criticized, it's natural that some women's first instinct is to be defensive. (This is especially common among professional-class women, often white, defending other white, professional-class women.) As with many of the complexities of gender politics, the patriarchy has bequeathed us an impossible situation. Because of continued male hegemony, women must take a combative stance against sexism simply to survive. That, in turn, leads to an all-roads-lead-to-Rome mode of argumentation, which, among liberal women, often becomes all-roads-end-at-sexism. If you're looking for further evidence of this line of thinking, try criticizing Hillary Clinton on Twitter, then sit back and watch the barrage of messages accusing you of internalized misogyny.

As Charlotte Shane wrote recently for The Baffler, "We have to devise more constructive ways of combating sexism, because going off like a car alarm whenever we spot it isn't working." It's true: In too many mainstream versions of the Klobuchar story, the focus has shifted from legitimate criticism of Klobuchar's behavior toward the presumption that any criticism of her behavior is being made in bad faith.

But Klobuchar is running for president of the United States, and these questions matter, and the straw-man argument so many liberals are using to support her is an insult to women everywhere who manage to hold leadership roles without abusing their underlings. Surely the supposed party for women can do better than that.

The really troubling issue at hand, in fact, is that so many liberals are willing to accept or excuse Klobuchar's abusive behavior. It's understandable in a way; we have to consider that we continually tell girls and women to act like a man to get ahead and attain leadership positions. This happens for a reason: Our society associates masculine traits with leadership qualities, despite research suggesting that women are actually better leaders than men.

"Overvaluing of masculinity is absolutely everywhere," says Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College.

Given the knowledge that masculinity can easily become toxic, and that many qualities traditionally considered feminine can often help a person lead more effectively, instead of telling women to act like men, we should be telling men to act more like women. That might sound like an absurdly lofty goal, and indeed there are basically no efforts to do so right now. Wade raises the example of gender imbalance in the STEM disciplines; there are abundant camps and programs aimed at getting women into male-dominated STEM fields, which are valued more highly than the humanistic fields that tend to attract more women. Yet "there is essentially zero effort to encourage men to go into the humanities," she says.

While it's become acceptable for women to act like men, there is still little to no space for men to define their own masculinity, much less act like women. In order to create a space for both men and women to follow basic moral codes, we must reject the idea that unapologetic masculinity should be the gold standard, and elevate more feminine alternatives instead. If both men and women are allowed to act in ways that currently code as feminine, we'll emerge with a society of better leaders. And if we hold our representatives to a higher standard of leadership, then we won't have to do mental gymnastics to justify the toxic, abusive behaviors of Klobuchar, Trump, and so many more—because they simply couldn't get away with it to begin with.

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