COLUMN: Femininity is used as grounds to disrespect female leaders

Last week, a Northwestern Law School professor and a student released some unsurprising research about interruptions among Supreme Court justices through the years. “Even though female justices speak less often and use fewer words than male justices, they are nonetheless interrupted during oral argument at a significantly higher rate,” the study read.

To be precise, in 1990 when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the only woman in the court, 35.7 percent of interruptions directed at all nine justices were directed specifically at her. In 2002, 45.3 percent of interruptions were directed at the court’s two female justices, and in 2015, 65.9 percent of all interruptions were directed at the court’s three females.

So, yes, progress is being made — we’re seeing more women join the Supreme Court, more women representing women and shaping and interpreting the law where crucial women’s issues such as reproductive rights are concerned. But they’re being talked over far more often than their male counterparts, by their male counterparts. This is reflective of an overarching problem: the dismissive treatment women inherently face, no matter what they’ve earned and achieved.

The phenomenon of women being interrupted, talked over and sidelined from dialogues in classrooms, workplaces and frankly, everywhere, is well-documented. The Harvard Business Review and other respected research institutions have all reported similar findings.

A core American expectation is that all it takes is hard work to earn power and respect. But no matter what boundaries we break, no matter how many glass ceilings we crack, women will constantly face treatment and attitudes — subtle or overt — that tell us that this is a man’s world still, and we belong in the kitchen.

On a macro level, the 2016 presidential election is a painful and cringe-inducing example to cite, and while the results of the election speak to a variety of cultural and identity-based national phenomena beyond gender, one heartbreaking message it seemed to elicit is that when you’re a woman, you can do everything right — in this context, devote your life to public service — and lose to a man who would have accomplished nothing had his father not left him more than $5 million, a man with a slew of sexual assault accusations against him who is on the record gleefully uttering the words “grab ‘em by the p-ssy.”

On a micro level, my everyday experiences closely reflect this trend as well. I have published numerous articles about the election, politics and women’s rights issues for multiple publications, and worked as a news and politics intern and writer for these publications. However, I find that whenever my conversations about national politics and yes, even women’s issues, include male peers, my perspective is quickly cast aside.

I can even recall one particularly frustrating experience during which a male peer belittled my decision to study journalism and political science at USC — after years of editorial experience — as the result of my parents allowing me to study a profitless field based on the assumption that I would “marry rich.” Apparently, it was inconceivable to him that my parents respected my achievements and passion for the discipline.

Outside of politics, in everyday American workplaces, the minority of men, who are unaffected by the gender wage gap but can actually concede that the wage gap exists, are happy to blame this disparity on female employees themselves for failing to take the initiative and negotiate for raises and advancement. Not only does a lifetime of being interrupted whenever a woman tries to raise her voice take a toll on her confidence and impede her ability to raise her voice, but research also suggests that even if women do raise their voices, they will be sidelined and ignored, dismissed as unimportant by men in positions of power.

As Prachi Gupta of Jezebel has noted, one possible unintended benefit to this deeply unfortunate societal trend is that in some cases, being interrupted teaches women assertiveness they may otherwise not have possessed. Gupta cited how senior justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg “have learned to stop saying things like ‘May I ask’ and ‘Can I ask’” and simply go ahead and “say what they want to say.”

A culture that fosters self-assuredness and confidence in women should be encouraged. But this does not change or minimize the fact that we live in a society where femininity is regarded as grounds for disrespect.

Historically, this has nearly always been the case. Queen Elizabeth I of England famously uttered that she had “the body of a woman” but “the heart of a King.” To rally her soldiers, she knew she had to adopt a masculine persona just to be respected. Historians speculate that this could be one reason for her lifelong refusal to marry — she could not exhibit vaguely feminine and domestic behaviors in order to be respected. In Egypt, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut famously dressed as a man and even wore a beard. And today, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s famous penchant for pantsuits is no accident either.

Those who have never had to tweak aspects of their identities for basic respect can sit and deny the existence of patriarchy in society all they like. But any woman who has ever been spoken over or sidelined in a dialogue, who has watched her feminine state of dress used as grounds to dismiss or even harass her and who has had to hide her femininity just to be listened to, but perhaps like Clinton, still be cast as “inauthentic,” knows that patriarchy is a fact of life.

Kylie Cheung is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You do Uterus,” runs every Thursday.

1 reply
  1. Thekatman
    Thekatman says:

    It’s interesting that you attribute Hillary’s loss in the general election to Trump being a man and his dad’s seed MO ey. Hillary lost because of her own issues. Everyone knew she stole the Dem nomination from Bernie. Everyone knows she cannot be trusted. And without marrying Bill Clinton she wouldn’t even be in the position she was in and wouldn’t have had the political career she had. You see, she married I to power and fame. And Hillary demand and attacked women her entire career. She has proven to the liberals that she cannot be trusted. Conservatives have known it since the 70s. Trump won, but the realty is that Hillary lost the election, big time.

    I think your piece, though very well written, should focus on the cultural expectations of women’s behavior instead of what you perceive to be society’s expectation. They are different.

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