You could call it sexism fatigue, but I’m finding it terribly hard to feel remotely bothered by the whole Mitt Romney “binders of women” kerfuffle. It’s vaguely amusing as a collective noun, but try as I might, I can’t summon up a sense of outrage. It’s hardly a surprise that Romney thinks like this. Plenty of people in power do, including many who, unlike Romney and Ryan, aren’t actively setting out to limit the choices of the women both in binders and out. Moreover, the focus on a relatively minor, if dishonest, slip seems disproportionate within the context of a breathtakingly sexist political culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here in the UK political commentators discuss “Cameron’s woman problem” with what feels like growing sympathy. Poor old David! He’s got to stop his party from being so openly sexist, otherwise the ladies won’t vote for him! That’s hardly fair – it’s as though we’re all holding him to ransom when we could just promise to tick the right box and allow him to sleep easy at night. Similarly, in the US elections, there’s an obsession with “the women’s vote”. It makes sense – women make up half the electorate, so if you’re planning on rolling back their rights, it’s best to do it stealthily (which is difficult when you’re also going for the misogynist vote. I’m not offering real advice here, just saying). Of course, if you’re the one who – for the time being – hasn’t messed up, it’s a great idea to capitalize on your opponent’s sexism. Patronizing and manipulative, but a great idea.
The whole “women voters” issue, and the way we talk about it, reminds me of the way certain men of my father’s age complain of all the things they have to do to keep “their women” happy. Women – ostracised when they are political actors – are clearly a pain in the arse when they’re not. The calculated, vote-focused manner in which politicians appeal to them suggests that women’s concerns are still perceived, deep down, as trivial. You’ve just got to keep the girls sweet every once in a while. Half-heartedly backtracking on all that stuff your fellow party members have been saying about abortion is the political equivalent of sending the wife out shopping for shoes. It might shut her up for a while, but it’s not as though your gesture was sincere. The moment she actually puts on a pair, you’ll moan like hell about how much they cost.
If you genuinely care about women’s well-being, it’s fair to say the voting decisions you make are far from irrelevant. They will have a real impact on your life, so what’s the point in griping about the flaws of the less sexist candidate? You might as well go with him 100% – what other choice is there? But I’m starting to feel that, while I’m happy with the real feminism, we could do with cutting out the pretend, manipulative, long-suffering vote-pleading version. In fact, if we’re going down the manipulative, long-suffering route, I for one would rather just have money for shoes.