Foot-in-mouth disease, or Todd Akin’s continuing female trouble
Tsk, tsk, Senator Claire McCaskill. It seems since 2006 you’ve lost that certain je ne sais quoi. Luckily, everyone’s favorite woman and gender studies theorist, Representative Todd Akin knows exactly where you’ve gone wrong. In an interview with the Kansas City Star last week, Akin described the incumbent as “much more ladylike [in 2006],” his evidence being that “in the debate on Friday she came out swinging.” Scandalous. I bet she belches and takes unchaperoned carriage rides, too. Womenfolk, take note: attempting to win an election by calling out your opponent on his extreme views in a debate is tantamount to showing your ankles in public.
While Representative Akin’s remark is only one more in a series of antediluvian outbursts (“legitimate rape” anyone?), it also raises questions about the role of women in politics and what it means to be “ladylike” in a modern context, particularly in the midst of a political debate. I’m not sure that any style of “debate” is ladylike, given the connotations of the word.
Ostensible decorum has long been a value associated with politics, but debate is simply a formalized way of arguing with another person. To my mind, “ladylike” means demur and not confrontational; it’s certainly important to be polite and professional, but neither of those words has gendered connotations. Besides, since when is politics a game for the pure and refined? Mudslinging is as American as apple pie; in 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams circulated pamphlets insinuating that opponent Andrew Jackson’s mother was a whore. Clearly, this was inappropriate; Quincy’s supporters should have called both the female and male members of Jackson’s family professional sex workers because clearly that would disqualify a person for national office.
While there are certainly worse things that Akin could have called McCaskill, resorting to attacking her in a way that draws attention to her gender is inappropriate, not to mention desperate. Making fun of women in power for reasons other than their political ability isn’t anything new. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s been the victim of this superficial criticism; there’s even a charming website devoted to demeaning her physical appearance, hillaryugly.com. Men typically don’t have this problem; people question their citizenship status and their tax returns, both legitimate concerns if true.
At this point, Akin’s remarks have all the legitimacy of a drowning rat calling the water ungentlemanly while steadfastly refusing to abandon ship. Arguing well in a debate, particularly against an opponent who has already talked himself into a proverbial hole, does not constitute indecorous behavior. There’s nothing to indicate that McCaskill was out of line or rude; even if she had been, calling her unladylike as opposed to rude or unprofessional, just demonstrates a disregard for both women and the point of politics generally. McCaskill shouldn’t be adhering to Akin’s definition of “ladylike” anyway; if anything, she should be actively defying it.
Unladylike, in the end, is just another word. It’s best to look at the big picture; the problem is not so much Akin as persistence of gender inequality. Let’s go back gender-neutral attack ads and good ol’ fashioned equal-opportunity mudslinging. Maybe Akin could accuse McCaskill of faking her birth certificate (McCaskill sounds kind of foreign, right? Bosnian maybe?) or not paying her taxes. At any rate, Akin should probably get his foot-in-mouth disease checked out; it looks like it’s going to cost him the election.