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Monday, May 18, 2009

Bully for You, Filly for Me (Or, The Alphas and the Omegas)

I had been meaning to blog on a New York Times article from a few days ago about the "phenomenon" of women in the workplace who harass, intimidate and sabotage other persons in the workplace. I'll call them bully girls. The article notes that while most workplace bullies are men, about forty percent of workplace bullies are women. It also notes that about seventy percent of the victims of female bullies are also women. The article decries this apparent affront to feminism. As one commentator suggests, such behavior is distressing because it is "antithetical" to the way women are supposed to behave to other women and gives lie to the claim that women are "nurturers and supporters." One commentator in the article suggested that woman on woman bullying may occur because women learn to fight with one another for male attention at any early age. "We're competing with our sisters for our dad's attention or for our brother's attention." I guess the girls just can't help it.

Say what? I don't know what's so surprising about the existence of bully girls. What pink cloud have some of these people have been living on? While it is possible that the behavior that is being described as "bullying" in women is just called "leadership" or "asserting authority" in men, this is not necessarily the case. (That's called the "B" factor, and the b doesn't stand for witch.) People with power, women included, are sometimes…mean to people without power. And it may have nothing to do with peculiar womanish problems. Earth shattering? I hardly think so.

Before I could get to the blog on bully girls another news item struck my attention: "Rachel Alexandra Wins the Preakness" blared the headlines in my New York Times news on tap e-mail. "Wow," I thought. "A female jockey?" Er, no. Rachel Alexandra is the filly that won. The horse. Ridden by a male jockey. The stories about Rachel Alexandra noted that she had broken a horsey glass ceiling of sorts, winning in a field of several highly rated male horses. Relatively few female horses have had big wins of this nature. Another female horse, Eight Belles, came in second in the Kentucky Derby last year but she fractured both front ankles in the race and had to be destroyed. Competing with all those big, rough boy horses was her undoing, according to some pundits.

So what do these two stories have to do with each other? A lot, if you think about it. Both have to do with that really odd gender othering that we do. Take the bully girl (please.) Despite the fact that women are half of the population, they are still treated as if they are slightly outside of the human species. Bully girls are noteworthy because of expectations of a quiet, calm domestic demeanor that follows women from the home place to the workplace. But we all know that some women weren't all sweetness and light even when they were relegated to the home front. Nor were women necessarily "nurturing and supportive" when it came to the women employees they supervised at home, namely, their domestics. As scholar Mary Romero writes, this was particularly true when the women bosses were white and the domestic workers were women of color. The relationship between domestics and their lady of the house bosses was frequently characterized by "spatial and verbal deference," emblems of an unremitting though often silent race and class struggle.

As to all the pretty little fillies that are featured in high stakes professional horse racing, gee, why make a big deal out of a filly winning a major horse race? Well, it seems that some of the same biology-as-social-destiny thinking that features in discussions about human capabilities is also seen in the horse world. It is apparently common in horse racing circles to rate male horses over females, colts over fillies, because of beliefs that fillies may be easily intimidated by the more aggressive colts or may be physically too fragile to withstand the rigors of big races. As one observer said of Rachel Alexandra: "[she] marked herself the alpha-filly of her generation, and it is that kind of horse who has earned a chance to tackle males."

Well, doggie. That's some mighty fine anthropomorphizing. Exporting human social categories such as gender to the animal world and attributing human motivations to the behavior of animals has always been a peculiar phenomenon. Moreover, the practice of investing non-humans with a gender identity ('"engenderneering" as scholar Roy Scwartzman calls it) further sheds light on the values and ideals of the broader culture in which we live. We struggle to find a way to understand the behavior of beings that are other than us. The distinction between human behavior and animal behavior was thought to be pretty clear cut for centuries. But the more we study animals, the more we find that they may have traits and capacities that are just as worthy of respect as our own. They may even behave like us in some cases. What does it mean to be human, anyway? Those boundaries just seem to be slip sliding all the time ("talking" dolphin, anyone?).

In this regard, anthropomorphism has a lot to do with the effort to reconcile human maleness and femaleness. As scholar Wendy Lynn Lee suggests, anthropomorphizing has serious implications for how we construct gender, racial, sexual and class norms in the human world, and for how those norms are deployed. This is because the essential "truth" of anthropomorphism is that the human experience is central, and is posited as the model for understanding the behavior of all living beings (and even in some cases the properties of inanimate objects). Moreover, the human who figures in Westernized anthropomorphic musings is typically straight, white and male: the alpha norm around which all other identity classes group. Those other identity classes are secondary. I'll call them omegas. Because status is often hierarchically arranged based on the relative acceptability of ones identity, there are often some pretty lively battles for avoiding the bottom-most identity status. Being the omega of the omegas is pretty cruddy.

So, what are these identity-challenged omegas supposed to do?

Make like the filly: Keep running, fast. At least until the race (or the way we think about the race) changes.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Color Her Justice (Or, If the Shoe Fits)

Supreme Court Justice David Souter recently announced that he would step down, clearing the way for President Obama to appoint a new Justice in Souter's place. Immediately pundits were abuzz with possible candidates. One strain of commentary was particularly salient among the progressive bloggerati: President Obama should appoint a woman, and she should be a woman of color.

That seems like an interesting possibility, in light of the fact that few women (and no woman of color ) have graced the bench of our highest court. Imagine, another pair of pumps to keep the wing tips at bay. (For some people the relevant dismissive gendered metonyms are "skirts" and "suits". I'm a shoe person, what can I say? ) Who will she be? One prominent name offered is Judge Sonia Sotomayor, an Associate Judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Sotomayor, a Latina (or a His-Panic, as Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan seems to pronounce it, Freudian slippage evident) is someone whose name has been offered for high judicial office from time to time by both Democrats and Republicans. She is, according to some, that elusive creature, the "political centrist." Hmm.

What does that mean? Or, more to the point, should we be worried? Choosing Justices for the Supreme Court is fraught with the peril of getting it wrong, that is, choosing someone whose pre-Court behavior ends up having little to do with his or her Court behavior. History is full of examples. David Souter, the Justice to be replaced, most easily comes to mind. Justice Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush after having been touted as a "confirmable conservative". His voting record has instead mostly been one of studious moderation, as he aligned himself with the more liberal wing of the Court in later years. Anther famous "mistake" was former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was appointed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower on the premise that he was reliably socially conservative. The Warren Court, as most of us know, was instead the source of a series of landmark decisions that changed the social and jurisprudential landscape of the United States.

Several recent appointments, especially those under the second President Bush, are seemingly more true to expectations. Chief Justice John Roberts for the most part has certainly lived up to the hype, given his decisions in cases such as Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 , where he penned the majority opinion disallowing the use of racial classifications for purposes of school integration. Roberts: ""[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race"—Gee, is that all we have to do? Who knew? All that time wasted living in a racist society..... Justice Samuel Alito, another recent conservative pick, has also done yeoman's work for the conservative cause. He was nicknamed "Scalito" in the early years of his term for his fairly consistent concurrence with uber-Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

But the truth is, looking closely at the records of even the ostensibly most conservative judges reveals some streaks of judicial independence. It may well be that tenure on the Court often works the way it's supposed to work—there is a smoothing of sharp edges as the pure fire of justice reshapes extreme political ideologies. Yes, there is still a left, right, and center on today's Supreme Court. But those typologies may be increasingly more blurry and consequently less useful in predicting how a Justice will rule.

If this is the case, what then is the role of race and gender in understanding the type of jurist a woman of color will be? Past and ongoing racial and gender discrimination in the United States means that women of color often see life through a particular lens, one that likely affords them a clarity of vision about issues of equity. What they observe through those raced and gendered lenses, however, may not be what we think. For instance, Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed by George H.W. Bush to fill former Justice Thurgood Marshall's seat, while an African American, is certainly no Thurgood Marshall. He must have been (and must still be) wearing 3-D glasses.

When President Obama goes out seeking the Supreme Court nominee who best fits the glass slipper, let us hope (choose one of the following shoe metaphors):

--the shoe fits.

--the nominee clicks his/her heels together three times and brings us back from jurisprudential Oz.

--(s)he's already walked a mile wearing the other one.

--the nominee doesn't take it and throw it at the American people.