Hillary Clinton and The 'Women’s Point of View' Conundrum
Kathleen Kelley Reardon is Professor Emerita of Management at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
She earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude and with distinction at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after receiving her BA degree with honors from University of Connecticut at Storrs. Kathleen is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Mortar Board.
Her primary areas of scholarly interest have been leadership communication, persuasion, politics in the workplace, negotiation and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly described her first book, Persuasion in Practice, as a landmark contribution to the field.
Kathleen has taught negotiation, leadership and politics in the MBA, Executive MBA, and International MBA. For 15 years, she served on the USC Preventive Medicine faculty, developing interventions aimed at changing health habits among high-risk populations. She also served as associate director with Warren Bennis of the USC Leadership Institute.
She has authored 10 books and numerous articles, including three for The Harvard Business Review. Her 2001 book The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle (Currency, Doubleday) became an Amazon.com nonfiction and business best seller. It was followed by The Skilled Negotiator (Jossey-Bass, 2004), It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough (Currency, Doubleday, 2005), Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sage, 2008), and Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (Harper Business, 2010).
Her first novel, Shadow Campus, is an inside look at the politics of academia, a mystery-thriller and a love story. Forbes described it as a “masterful debut.” The sequel is underway for publication in 2015.
Kathleen was awarded the 2013 Humanitarian Award by the University of Connecticut Alumni Association based on her contributions to underserved groups, especially in originating and working to develop college prep academies for foster teens (www.firststar.org).
Kathleen is a signature blogger at Huffington Post (since 2005) and also blogs at her website (www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com).
Hillary Clinton faces a challenge not shared by males running for the U.S. presidency. Women are still rare among government and business leaders. Hence, their choices, even seemingly innocuous ones such as clothing and hairstyle, influence impressions. Georgetown professor of Linguistics, Deborah Tannen, explains that women’s characteristics and actions tend to be more “marked” than those of men — more noticeable and imbued with meaning.
To avoid being negatively “marked” by their choices, many women downplay gender as they attempt to reach the top of their fields. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign took this route. This time, we’re told, she will not do so.
But how does a female candidate for the U.S. presidency help voters determine when being a woman is relevant and when simply being who she is as an individual carries more import? In particular, how does she do so when the tendency among journalists is to emphasize her gender and, for many, to poke fun and even demean her for choosing to wear heels that don’t wreck your feet for life or pants suits for comfort and preferred style?
It isn’t easy.
Essayist and author Dorothy L. Sayers' 1946 book Unpopular Opinions offers a still-timely perspective on femaleness being seen as one’s primary category. It results, often, in expecting women to represent the views of their gender rather than their own. “What do women think?” and “What do women want?” are tall-order questions. In most cases, they are unanswerable by any one woman. According to Sayers, it is idiotic to assume that there is a female point of view on the majority of issues. Yet, women who obtain visibility for their work in fields dominated by men are often asked to speak for women.
According to Sayers, this is due to an “unreasonable and irritating” assumption that “all of one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs” — particularly the most visible class. This, she argued, is a “very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women.”
There is not, for example a women’s point of view on the health benefits of still versus sparkling water. It is “silly,” Sayers wrote, to suggest that women have a shared “view” on finance. In fact, on most topics in a free society, there is no commonly held male or female view. Female gender may increase familiarity with certain issues or elicit greater sensitivity and agreement, as in the case of equal pay for equal work. But if we don’t discuss issues in terms of the “male view,” it’s important to avoid placing women under a single umbrella.
We are creatures of habit and thinking in terms of categories is one of our more common ones. For Clinton, an important early campaign step will be helping voters and journalists define when gender is meaningful, when it offers special insights, and when it is irrelevant. Effective persuasion for a woman candidate relies on making such distinctions, as it’s very unlikely that we creatures of habit will make them on our own.
Photo Credit: mistydawnphoto / Shutterstock.com
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