Boys vs. Girls?: Reducing the Decision to Attack Libya to Sexist Gender Wars

A gender war broke out last week in the media when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and National Security Council Special Director Samantha Power all advised President Barack Obama to use military force in Libya.  But sexism is no stranger to political media coverage.

It’s hard for people to run a political campaign.  But it’s even harder for women.  They have to contend with the double edged sword that misogyny wields.  Just looking at the 2008 presidential race it’s easy to see that.  In addition to comments about her laugh (or rather “cackle”), how she was only a senator and a presidential candidate because her husband cheated on her and her penchant for pantsuits, the media lobbed a litany of insults towards Hillary Clinton.  She was called a bitch, witch, nag, haggard, shrew and was said to cause “involuntary leg crossing” (thank you asshats Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews).  And while I have no love for the Mama Grizzly, Sarah Palin also faced sexism.  In addition to her lack of competency, the media continuously focused on her legs, her beauty and some pundits said they wanted to sleep with her.  The bitch and the sexpot…the two cariactures attributed to Clinton and Palin.  And while male candidates face harsh criticism as well, they don’t face the mountains of sexism about their appearance and clothing.

But even when women don’t run for office, when they’re appointed instead, they still face sexist scrutiny.  Several articles ran that talked about the “emasculation” of Obama and his “warrior women.”  Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power were all deemed the cold and calculating masterminds behind Obama’s decision to go to war with Libya.  Both Clinton and Rice have ties to Rwanda and the memory of not interceding in the heinous genocide.  Clinton also initially supported the use of military force with Iraq, a decision she said she later regretted.  In her groundbreaking book, Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power argues for the use of force in preventing and alleviating genocide and human rights attrocites.

So to me, it’s not incredibly surprising that they would’ve advised Obama to use force in the case of Libya when delusional douchebag asshole Qaddafi has his military shooting into crowds of protesters and civilians.  But rather than focusing on the merit or deficiency of Obama and his cabinet’s policy decisions, people would rather turn this into high school and talk about estrogen.  What’s next, people talk about Clinton, Power and Rice’s menstrual cycles??  What the hell is wrong with people?!

While some like Nick Burns have focused on the issue at hand, sadly far too many journalists and political pundits would rather waste time frantically wringing their hands over the gender of policy decision makers.

In her article for the NY Times, Maureen Dowd continues and reinforces Jacob Heilbrunn’s comparison of the women in Obama’s cabinet to the mythical female warriors the Valkyries, who in Norse mythology would decide which souls would die in battle. Dowd discusses the the gender reversal of the policy decision:

“It is not yet clear if the Valkyries will get the credit or the blame on Libya. But everyone is fascinated with the gender flip: the reluctant men — the generals, the secretary of defense, top male White House national security advisers — outmuscled by the fierce women around President Obama urging him to man up against the crazy Qaddafi…We’ve come a long way from feminist international relations theory two decades ago that indulged in stereotypes about aggression being “male” and conciliation being “female.”

And Dowd is right; people are fascinated.  While she raises the valid criticism of what’s considered “masculine” and “feminine,” I wish she had called out the ridiculousness of making the issue about gender in the first place.

Andrea Mitchell at MSNBC said, “In the end, it became the women foreign policy advisers against the men.” Ben Smith at Politico questions if it’s “boys against girls” when it comes to Libya. Jonathan Chaitt at The New Republic likens the women to “Obama’s female hawks” saying their decision to intervene in Libya is “counter-stereotypical.”

Sexist asshole Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation argues that Obama should “reign in his warrior women” who pushed him into war with Libya:

“We’d like to think that women in power would somehow be less pro-war, but in the Obama administration at least it appears that the bellicosity is worst among Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. All three are liberal interventionists, and all three seem to believe that when the United States exercises military force it has some profound, moral, life-saving character to it. Far from it.”

Judith Miller, who does raise some salient points about the attacks on Libya and the humanitarian efforts, still cannot resist making it a gender issue.  At FoxNews.com she writes,

“After stating that Qadaffi had lost legitimacy and must go, he [Obama] had to be pushed by the women around him even to stop a civilian slaughter…He should not wait once more for his women warriors to prod him either into bolder action…”

Douchebag Mark Krikorian at the National Review reduces the situation to tired gender stereotypes and acts as if Obama is a cuckolded husband with a nagging wife (or in this case three nagging wives):

“Before you send me any burning bras, the problem is not with women leaders — the enemies of the Virgin Queen and the Iron Lady can attest to that. The problem is not even with the president having strong female subordinates. Rather, Obama’s pusillanimity has been hugely magnified by the contrast with the women directing his foreign policy and the fact that they nagged him to attack Libya until he gave in.”

Luckily, a few have called bullshit on this nonsense.  Irin Carmon at Jezebel points out several of the sexist articles on the web which attempt to emasculate President Obama and are all basically saying that Clinton (and I would argue Rice and Power too) “stole Obama’s balls.”

Heather Michon at Salon astutely argues,

“Those who hate Obama or who hate assertive women (admittedly, there’s often overlap between those two groups) have jumped on the story with glee. It allows them to call Obama effeminate and spineless, led around by the nose by mere women. And, oh, how they’ve missed Hillary the Nutcracker. Plus, three women means three times the opportunity to point out how these ladies fall short of God-ordained feminine norms.”

Michon also points out that the women were doing their job, that they garnered international support and while they were the advisors, the decision to attack Libya was ultimately made by men.  Jenée Desmond-Harris at The Root advises,

“It’s safe to say that the Libyan people still suffering under Qaddafi aren’t losing any sleep over the number of X chromosomes associated with each U.S. official right now. It would be great if we didn’t, either.”

At my 9 to 5 job, I work at a women’s research center where I coordinate a program geared at training female (and occasionally male) grad students to run for political office.  Most men who campaign for elected office just go ahead and run, regardless of whether or not they’re actually qualified for politics.  Yet many women often feel that they need more schooling, more training, more networking; they never feel as if they are quite yet ready.  Whereas men don’t feel they need any special qualifications, most women need to be asked to run.  I don’t tell you all this to harp on the gendered differences between women and men.  I share this to emphasize that women and men are socialized and treated differently.

When girls share their job aspirations, they rarely say president, senator or a city councilor.  But when I was young, I remember several boys aspiring to be president.  And I’m sure I’m not alone.  Is it that women don’t want to be leaders or serve in politics?  No, it’s that most of us aspire to be what we see around us.  Meaning that if we only see white men in the role, then we may subconsciously think that only white men are fit for the job of president.  Only 17% of women serve in the House and Senate and the U.S. ranks an appalling 72nd in terms of women in parliaments globally.  Gender doesn’t determine competency in leadership, yet the media (and voters) often seem clueless to that fact.

Political pundits are not only reinforcing sexist gender stereotypes, they’re pitting women against men, attempting to keep women in their place and emasculate an African-American man (would they do this if Obama was white?) all in one fell swoop.  We should be focused on the human rights crisis against the civilians of Libya, not the gender of policy makers.  Some people think that because Hillary Clinton came so close to winning the presidential candidacy, we must have achieved equality.  Sadly, this incident shows that sexism is one battle that’s far from over.

2 thoughts on “Boys vs. Girls?: Reducing the Decision to Attack Libya to Sexist Gender Wars

  1. I saw an article regarding our attack on Libya, last week, with Samantha Power’s name mentioned.
    All i could think was, there’s gonna be a blog on this!

    Personally, i think we should stay out of this mess.
    We are already saddled with two wars we can’t fund, we’re in no position to further flush more of our resources, down the drain.
    Man or woman, i think this was a bad decision.

  2. But unlike the shaky reports that sent us to Afghanistan and the outright lies that landed us in Iraq, Libya is actually a nation who’s leader needs to be removed from power for the sake of its people. I can understand people being “war-weary” due to these other conflicts, but your argument seems to speak to the US looking out for itself, and not being at least somewhat responsible for what happens around the world. Insular politics don’t work in this current technological age; the problems halfway around the world are as much our problem as those right in our hometowns.

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