[Repost Note: This is a repost of an article that previously appeared on Shakesville.]
|Family Symbols by George Hodan|
Liss has already written why that framing is reductive and misogynist for defining women in terms of their relationships, and how that framing subtly reinforces the idea that President Obama is speaking to men about their wives, mothers, and daughters. And that this choice to address men over women is particularly problematic for many reasons -- not the least being that for a number of the women in this country who both support Obama and choose to identify as the wives-mothers-and-daughters of men, not all of those men support Obama and his policies in the first place. Which means that for these women, Obama is talking over his supporters in order to address people who do not support him now and never have.
I am one of those women.
I am the daughter of a man who does not support President Obama.
I am the wife of a man who does not support President Obama.
I am the step-mother of a man who does not support President Obama.
I am the sister of a man who does not support President Obama.
I am all of these things. I am a Democratic woman in an otherwise Republican/Libertarian family, and not a single one of my male relatives supports President Obama or his policies.
My family, much like my vote, is mine. I decide, every day of my life, what I will choose to put up with and what I will not. I weigh costs and benefits and I make decisions. I assert and defend my boundaries to my family members about what I am willing to talk about and listen to. I require my decisions about my boundaries to be respected by my family, just as I expect my decisions about my relationships to be respected by my friends and fellow feminists. Living in a sexist, racist, all-around-fucked-up culture means sometimes interacting with people who have absorbed that toxicity in various ways. And each of us, myself included, makes decisions about what, and when, and where, and how much we are willing and able to put up with.
I make the choice, on a daily basis, to act as daughter to a man who happens to be a Libertarian; to act as a sister to a man who happens to be a Republican; to act as wife to a man who happens to be a Republican; and to act as step-mother to a young man who happens to be a Republican. But though I make those choices, and though I expect those choices to be respected, I refuse to be defined by others in terms of those choices.
I feel that I understand why President Obama uses this framing. I imagine that he expects the women in his audience to already be on-board with things like "sexual harassment is bad" and "violence against women is not good". I expect that he thinks that the people he needs to convince and bring on-board are the people in the audience who are not women. And I think that he believes the best way to reach those people is to remind them that this isn’t about violence against an amorphous scary mass of Unknown-and-Unknowable Women, but rather that this is about protecting the women that the men in the audience presumably care about. Most men, after all, have a wife or a mother or a daughter or a sister whom they would prefer not to see harmed. I believe that Obama is trying to personalize these issues for those members of the audience that are not automatically and axiomatically expected to be on his side, by virtue of being women to start with.
But one of the many problems with this is that this attempt at a bi-partisan reach across the aisle to opponents doesn’t work. No matter how much Obama tries to link his policies with a better life for daughter-wife-mother-sister Ana Mardoll, my father and my husband and my step-son and my brother are not going to support Obama. They’re not going to write their congresspersons and senators to ask them to support the Violence Against Women Act based on a sudden realization that violence against women affects all women, including their dear daughter-wife-mother-sister Ana.
Because politics in this country is played like a sporting match between two rival teams, anything that is associated with Obama and the Democratic party is automatically suspect for my Republican and Libertarian relatives -- if Obama wants the VAWA to pass, then that must mean that there’s something wrong with it. And if the Republican members of Congress and the Senate voted against it, then that just proves that it had a clause in there which was bad and needed to be opposed. That has been the Republican party line for as long as I can remember, and given that the party routinely tries to pass laws with names like "The Protection for Blessed Darling Angel Infants With Tiny Feet and Unicorn Farts Act" that will instead result in the unnecessary deaths of women, they’ve had a lot of practice in being able to project that kind of behavior onto their opponents -- and Republican followers have had a lot of practice in believing that things like a "Violence Against Women Act" are unnecessary and redundant, that the act is political grandstanding at best and a sneaky run around due process at worst.
President Obama doesn’t seem to understand or care that when he ignores and invisibles me in an attempt to appeal to my father, my brother, my husband, and my step-son to support his policies on the grounds that those policies benefit their beloved Ana, they aren’t listening to him. They don’t accept his framing that those policies help me and people like me; they instead assume that his attempt to link his policies to the actual woman in their actual life is merely manipulative, an attempt to redirect their feelings about me towards his politics and policies. Obama doesn’t seem to understand or care that talking over his supporters -- women like me -- in order to address the unsympathetic men in their lives actively alienates women without earning him a single new supporter.
In effect, he’s ignoring me in order to address men who ignore him in turn.
Discussing me as though I am an object not in the audience, and reducing me into a label -- Mother-Daughter-Sister-Wife -- profoundly alienates me from the conversation. For huge swaths of my day, I am not a mother or a daughter or a sister or a wife -- I am a blogger or a worker or a driver or a taxpayer or a million other things which are vitally important to both me and my country. And when I do go home to the family I have made and the roles I have chosen to play, I still don’t wish to be identified as those roles by the outside world because those roles are my business and my choice, and are not the business of any third-party observer. I am a daughter to my father, but I am not a Daughter with a capital-D. I do not wish to be defined in that way, and certainly not as part of national discourse about my rights as a person, and most especially not in a cultural setting where, only a few decades ago, I was effectively owned by my father or my brother or my husband. This framing does not exist in a vacuum.
Context matters. To my father, I am a daughter; to my employer, I am an employee; to my readers, I am a blogger. To my president, I wish to be a citizen or a resident or -- better yet, shedding the political connotations of those complex words -- a person. A person who lives in the community that my president has been elected to preside over, and a person who deserves bodily autonomy and safety from harassment and violence because I am a person in my own right rather than because my male owners and handlers agree that I deserve these things. I deserve -- I demand -- the right to be defined by others in terms that I am comfortable with, and not in terms that they choose to impose on me.
I am a person. Anything beyond that -- what roles I choose to carry in whatever relationships I choose to maintain -- should not be used to define and objectify me in political discourse. And that is why I have signed this petition asking my president to abandon this rhetorical device in favor of more inclusive language.