Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

August 23, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

I wanted to know why Katy put her picture on her yard sign. I naively thought the decision came as a result of her side hustle as a realtor. I also hated that Katy ran with her first name, “Vote for Katy.” I hadn’t seen male candidates use either of these strategies.

A more experienced campaign hand explained it to me: Katy wanted people to see how likable she was.

Four years later, in 2008, we all watched candidate Obama quip, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” 

In 2019, several journalists, many of them women, tried to articulate the problem for us. Jessica Valentine titled her Medium post, “I’ll Vote for a Woman, Just Not that Woman.” She writes: 

“There are plenty of people who support female politicians only in theory — finding faults with them the minute they’re actually running for office.”

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux titled her analysis, “Americans Say They Will Vote for a Woman, But…” The “but” includes all kinds of evidence demonstrating how gender stereotypes shape the way we evaluate candidates. 

We haven’t yet bridged the gap between our ideas of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a leader. We use something called “likability” to talk about this gap without making it sound like it’s about gender. 

It’s still about gender. This concept allows us to make a performative show of support for women candidates. Then we turn around and find a dozen different reasons why a particular woman is a weak candidate.

She isn’t likable. Or, the 2018 version, she isn’t electable. (See Jessica Bennett’s “Elizabeth Warren and the Curse of ‘Electability.’“)

That’s why a group of influential women in politics wrote a letter to the media this month. Addressing the full roster of newsroom staff, they asked us to do better this time.

The group of women acted preemptively, at the beginning of August, before Joe Biden announced his VP pick. They acknowledged the important work newsrooms had done to be anti-racist in their reporting of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. 

Then they asked these newsrooms to also commit to being anti-sexist. 

The letter included a list of transgressions, conventional practices that they say limit the diversity we find on our ballots.

At least two of the practices fit our discussion today:

  • Reporting on questions of electability of women is, in itself, a perpetuation of a stereotype about the ability of women to lead.
  • Reporting on doubts women may not be qualified leaders even when they have experience equal to or exceeding male leaders.

These practices make it possible for old ideas about gender to haunt women who run for office.

In understanding the problem in these terms, we follow the lead of Shirley Chisholm. She served in an elective office for nearly twenty years and made her own run for the presidency in 1972. She ran under the banner of “unbought and unbossed.” 

That slogan suggests she also endured plenty of advice about being “likable enough.” 

In a 1983 commencement address to students in Greenfield, Massachusettes, Chisholm shared how she understood the forces working against her. 

She believed the “coalition of conscience” also had to serve as a “coalition of confrontation.” 

Chisolm provided a litany of ideas from the “bad, old days.” These dead ideas would keep “Blacks at the back door and women at the bedroom door.” She then described her opponents as wanting to “pry the lid off the coffin” of those dead ideas. 

As a result, she said: 

“…our confrontation then must be against the grave robbers. Our coalition has got to keep the lid nailed down tight and the wheels of progress turning and rolling once again. Our coalition still has miles to go. The bad, old days may be dead, my friends, but there are still plenty of ghosts roaming around.”

If we want to support the work of anti-sexist newsrooms, we’re going to have to chase these ghosts too. We have to say no to dead ideas masquerading as knowing critiques.

Let’s insist on substance when we evaluate Kamala Harris as a potential Vice President. 

Let’s make our support for a hypothetical woman a force that means something when actual women run for office. It’s important that we do this for the women on the ballot today across the country this year. 

No more ghosts. Real women. 2020. It will make an even bigger difference for the women we hope to find on the ballot in the future.

Let’s keep chasing down dead ideas,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“In the United States, we have never been taught how noncompliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism and our art. We should be”

—Rebecca Traister, author Good and Matd: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

Can we protect November elections by talking openly about all the ways that everything could go wrong?

Weeks ago, I read a long Twitter thread with “war games” scenarios about the upcoming election that frightened me too much to share. Seth Abramson, the author of the Twitter thread and a Newsweek op-ed on the subject, defended his decision to think through the strategies President Trump might use to disrupt November’s elections, “discussing a potential scenario of this sort publicly helps defuse it by making what would otherwise be nefariously opaque, transparent.” 

It has taken me a month to get there, but let’s talk about it publicly. Writing for The Atlantic, Laurence Tribe, Jennifer Taub, and Joshua Geltzer made their case this month, “Trump has Launched a Three-Pronged Attack on the Election: And it starts with undermining the U.S. Postal Service.” Fortunately, they have a five-pronged strategy to counter this attack. They conclude:
 


“Trump thinks he has a trio of tricks up his sleeve for November: Slow the mail, rely on Republican state legislatures to deem Election Day a failure with so many votes still uncounted, and decry as illegitimate all vote-counting that persists past Election Day, and certainly past December 8. State legislatures and courts should act now to show just how futile this strategy would be for Trump.”


If you’re looking sideways at all this speculation and still don’t quite see how it all comes together, start by reading David Graham’s “The ‘Blue Shift’ Will Decide the Election.”

But don’t read any of this before going to bed. I’ve been convinced that we need to talk about it but it will make it difficult to sleep.

Will seeing the devastation of the forest fires in California finally kill our bad ideas about how climate change works?

In California, 771,000 acres are burning. These 560 blazes have pushed residents to leave their homes and flee to shelters operating at half capacity due to the pandemic. With a devastating human toll and the hundreds of Redwoods lost, climate scientists hope their warnings will be heard. It’s not going to get better unless we do something. Wired’s headline delivers the message, “California’s Wildfires Are a Doom of Our Own Making.” Their analysis includes something they call the Pyrocene:

“Mounting evidence is also suggesting that climate change is creating ever-fiercer windstorms that tear through California. The result is what fire historian Steve Pyne calls the Pyrocene: climate change and land misuse conspiring to create a unique period in Earth and human history, a sort of Ice Age, but with flames.”

Last August, USA Today rounded up their list of “20 Signs of Climate Change around the U.S.” It serves as a reminder that this isn’t just about California. You’re not alone if you’re coping with excessive heat and wondering if Jonathan Franzen had it right. Franzen wrote, “What if We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we have to admit that we can’t prevent it.” The commentary in The New Yorker magazine demonstrates the damage a false hope of salvation can do. He also shows how the small ethical decisions we all make add up. The article is (a bit) more hopeful than the headline suggests. It’s up to us. We each have to make the most ethical choices we can make in the days ahead.

Can we use the debate over going back to school during a pandemic to recover how these institutions represent our ideas of equality and fairness?

Many teachers have gone back to class now and faced a long list of difficult circumstaces. Many families have now had to decide whether or not they want to follow the plan their schools adopted. 

A push to go back to school so that the economy can recover has dominated the public debate over the debate at the national level. Fortunately, educators and administrators in their communities continue to weigh heavier obligations to the students and families they serve. Many of those decision-makers have designed plans that at least attempt to accomodate the persistent disparities that exist in their student populations. 

In 2014, political scientist Danielle Allen attempted to articulate the relationship between our approach to education and our understanding of equality.  


“I think that education itself—a practice of human development—has, intrinsic to the practice, important contributions to make to the defense of human equality, the cultivation of political and social equality, and the emergence of fair economic orders. But I think we have lost sight of just how education, in itself, and putting aside questions of funding and distribution, relates to those egalitarian concerns. If we are to do right by the students we purport to educate, in whatever context and at whatever level, I think we need to recover that vision.”

Here’s to everyone working today to make these principles of equality and fairness real in our schools. 

Good Work: Ida B. Wells and Portraits of Change

This 1,000 square feet mosaic of Ida B. Wells will soon demand attention at D.C.’s Union Station. She is not alone. The mosaic pictured above includes thousands of images of other women who fought for women’s right to vote. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) initiated the project, Our Story: Portraits of Change, that has now been designed by artist Helen Marshall. Talking to CNN, Anna Laymon, Executive Director of WSCC explained that the design makes it possible to “show the depths of the movement… it wasn’t just one woman who fought for the right to vote.” There’s a history that accompanies the space too. In 1919, suffragists, who had been jailed for picketing at the White House, started their “Prison Special” tour. They boarded the train, still wearing their prison uniforms, and started a national tour to raise awareness for their cause. Helen Marshall designed a mosaic that she hopes will engage visitors to Union Station today. She shares her vision for the project.

“In ancient cultures, floor mosaics were in public places and revered and could be studied close up— that’s what we want people to really explore it and see ALL the pictures and even touch them.”

You might not have plans to visit Union Station, but you can still immerse yourself in the story this work represents. To explore the pictures yourself, visit the project’s interactive website, “Our Story: 100 Years of Women’s Right to Vote.”

Now, share this newsletter with a civic-minded friend and start a conversation.