This week, in preparation for the 2016 election, there was another series of unfortunate incidents concerning language and women. First, Representative Renee Ellmers (R -N.C.)was quoted at a Republican messaging forum telling the audience essentially that “Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level.” Later, when she was pilloried in the media for expressing herself in this surprisingly throwback way, especially given her own career prominence, her office responded that her remarks were “taken completely out of context by a liberal woman reporter.”
We will return to the stickiness of Ellmers’ situation. Still, her notion that “men tend to talk on a higher level,” was disproved almost immediately with the return of Todd Akin. For those who might have forgotten, he’s the former Missouri Congressperson and noted intrauterine expert who said in a televised forum during his 2012 campaign that "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
By now, perhaps everyone, including his fellow Republicans, would prefer that Todd shut his whole thing down and just go away.
Au contraire, Akin has emerged from his Mount Olympus of Not Getting It to go on a media tour with his first book, “Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Faith and Freedom.” And at every stop, he happily responds to the media elite’s questions about his notorious rape statement.
“Exactly what was so terrible?” he asked in an interview with the Daily Beast. “I didn’t think we had done anything near so evil as what the media was carrying to absurd heights. So the final decision was to do an apology not for what I said, but for what everybody perceived I said.”
Representative Ellmers blamed her particular brouhaha on perception as well, and also on that liberal woman reporter.
The reporter in question was actually Ashe Schow, who writes for the Washington Examiner, a conservative paper. She is also a former staffer with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. She is by no means a “liberal” member of the media, but as a working, thinking journalist, she felt that the language that Ellmers used, particularly as part of a conference on messaging to women, deserved reporting and further scrutiny -- as in, “isn’t this ironic? “
Here’s what the transcript shows that Ellmers said: “Many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and how, you know, the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that.
She added, “We need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go.”
Never mind the language. Trying to pander to women by making fun of men and their little charts and graphs sets a cheap and creepy tone. It’s like a man making political hay out of the fact that his wife is always late. Some women love charts, and some husbands are always late.
Her phrasing is super-awkward and unfortunate, to be sure, but I believe what she genuinely meant to say (to put words in her mouth) was that that women are busy, and don’t want to see pie charts, and want to hear about what matters to them. And perhaps she’s also saying that men are better at obfuscation and bamboozling? At least she’s an equal opportunity sexist, then.
As for context, how is rattling off stuff like this while trying to train people in effective messaging to women at all effective?
Instead of dumbing down, we all need to smarten up. The last thing women need is to be condescended to. Most of us have developed incredible condescend-dar, from, well, years of being patronized and talked down to.
In the bigger picture, and the presidential race of 2016, there is no model for a female president -- aside from Donna Karan ads in the 1980. It sounds wildly naïve, I know, but how about speaking truth about policy?
Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming front-runner for the Democratic side, of course, but Elizabeth Warren is a fast-rising star, as she goes around the country stumping for Democrats, attacking banks and talking about lowering the interest on student loans. Certainly, with Clinton’s latest listening tour (which is really what her book tour is), she has learned the lesson of how differently she sees “flat broke” from how it is perceived by working people.
Those are the main Democratic women contenders for now. But consider that stranger things have happened than that the next presidential election might be a battle between a liberal and a conservative -- who both happen to be women.
Look at the story of Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female British Prime Minister, and the ultimate outsider who made herself an insider. Though she was a working mother, she never identified herself as such, nor talked about feminism or made any attempt to be on the side of women and families. Au contraire, she was dubbed “The Iron Lady,” and out-Ironed everyone. She was firmly against any entitlement (except for corporations), broke British unions, and had a very tough (stereotypically male) view on the virtues of individualism and hard work.