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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's Tough Being the First

Doug and I recently watched the PBS special on Jackie Robinson. He was quite a man. His life's work is so much deeper than the well-known and incredibly important breakthrough he made in crossing the color line in Major League Baseball. Riddled throughout this documentary were comments regarding how Jackie needed to behave in a certain way in order to make his transition into the major leagues a success. He had to make certain concessions in order to help those already in power feel more comfortable with this big change.  He had to run faster, bat better, field without error in order to gain the respect of the old guard. Even so, he still put up with a lot of abuse and racism and had to bite his tongue whilst doing so.
I start here because I think sometimes people don't fully understand how hard it is to be the first person to do something in a field that has been traditionally dominated by white males. Those seeking to be the first to break the white male barrier have to put up with a fair amount of abuse, racism, and sexism whilst trying to break down the barriers that have kept their kind from advancing. They certainly are subject to much harsher critique than the establishment and there are times when I think people, especially those who have never ever even considered what it means to be the first, forget how much scrutiny people trying to break through these societal barriers come under.
Now lest you think that I believe the critiques about Hillary Clinton are strictly based on her being woman, let me diffuse that from the onset. Hillary has made some mistakes. She actually admitted on 60 Minutes Sunday night that the email stuff was a big mistake and that she's learned her lesson. Both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell had the same. It doesn't make it right but it makes it common. Benghazi is the other place that people love to come after Hillary and I think it just needs to be stated that the Secretary of State does not act alone. There is no way that she is single handedly responsible for what unfolded there. But again, because she's running for President, she has become the lightening rod for that situation. What I do know is that in the countless ways in which these issues have been investigated, Clinton has not been found guilty of criminal activity. Time to move forward.
I mention these two issues because I don't want them to distract from my main point today...that for a woman to break through the gender barrier that has been US Presidency is no easy task.
Is that neckline too low? Is the hemline too high? Where do I put the microphone?
As a woman, Hillary has been judged far more harshly on things like tone of voice, her dress, her hair, and her relationship with her husband to name a few. People don't like the tone of her voice because it comes across as shrill. Could that not be because people are more used to lower tones that men's voices tend to have? As a woman in a profession that requires me to speak in public, I feel much frustration about this. We can't help the pitch or tone of voice that we are given. Of course, we can work on honing our speaking skills, but there's little I can do when people subconsciously feel more comfortable with the tones of a male voice. On dress...what a headache for women! Men have so many fewer choices than women when it comes to wardrobe. A suit is a suit is a suit. Men have to decide what color, what fabric, and which cut they want but at the end of the day it's a coat and trousers. They can add flare with a shirt color and tie but again, it's a pretty small set of expectations. As a woman pastor I have done more mental gymnastics about what to wear to work than you can imagine. A suit can either be too feminine or too masculine. Too old fashioned or too modern. Skirt length and neckline plunge are things I think about every time I get dressed to go into the pulpit or serve communion. I have been blasted for wearing trousers even when matched up well with a high quality suit. I have been blasted for skirt length even though a skirt that hits me slightly above the knee looks the most attractive. And then there's the stupid issue of where to clip a microphone when you are wearing something without a waist band. If Hillary were to dress in a black tailored suit all the time, I have little doubt that people would blast her for being too masculine. They make fun of her pant suits but why is her wardrobe even of concern? To be fair, I was equally frustrated that Ivanka Trump's dress was a headliner after she spoke at the RNC. A woman really doesn't stand a chance. Too sexy, you get blasted for not being professional. Too business-like you get blasted for being too masculine. It's really a tough world for the professional woman to navigate, all these issues about dress. On the issue of hair, it's utterly stupid that this is a thing but it points to the reality that people want to feel comfortable with the person they are looking at and truth be told, people are most comfortable looking at someone who looks like them. Again, men don't face the same style issues as women do when it comes to hair and make up.
I'm wearing trousers with this suit. Is that OK? Is my hair and make-up tasteful, attractive yet not too overdone as to cause discomfort?
On Hillary's relationship with her husband, she has been blasted for standing by her man and tolerating his infidelity. It's interesting to me that Trump's 3 marriages have nary been mentioned. Melania Trump has not come under fire for marrying a man whose track record with women is not so fantastic. So why the critique of Hillary for standing with Bill? She would be equally vilified had she left him. Would a divorced woman stand a chance at a Presidential nomination? I think not. If Hillary was caught in an affair, that would spell the end for her. Men who cheat, while perhaps seen as pigs, are more easily forgiven than women who cheat. Women who cheat are called whores and cast aside as used goods. The double standard here is sickening.
Yes my friends, it is tough being the first. I have not been the first to have to navigate an uncharted road. I am lucky enough to have had female predecessors in both of my full-time calls. In the interim, the associate was a female and now the church has called a woman. I am very thankful for this and yet, I have still come under enormous fire at times. Real things that have been said to me include:
I'm not very feminine in the way I run meetings or tackle issues. I've been told to tone down the rhetoric on fighting for the women's issue, to change the language I use from speaking about feminism and instead just using words like love and respect. I have been told to smile more often. (It's hard to smile when you are so angry about being discriminated against). Doug has been told to rein me in at times. These are things that make me crazy because Doug would never be told these things. People often want to think that gender or race make no difference, that they just want the best person for the job but in reality when someone breaks the race or gender barrier, one of the things that they are directly or subtly told to do is to behave in the way that the established majority does. So for women in leadership it means figuring out how to remain feminine enough to appeal to that desire, but lead like a man in order to appease those for whom maleness is the ultimate standard for leadership. Additionally, big men get a better pass than big women. Generally speaking, the public seems to need women to be fit in order to be a good leader. But I think this mainly points to what people feel comfortable looking at.
There is no question in my mind that Hillary comes under greater scrutiny because she is a woman. People feel uncomfortable with her because she's shift from the norm. Obama faced much of the same because he is African American. And some have even said that part of Trump's appeal is because many in the US are tired of having to tolerate looking at a non-white male in the White House. What I do know for sure is that Hillary has to be far more skilled than any white man has to. Her resume clearly indicates that she is qualified to be President, which is far more than can be said for Donald Trump. 
Yes indeed. It is extremely hard to be the first to break a barrier. My point in writing these words is to help us think about our reactions, to look into our hearts and consider the harshness with which we may be judging Hillary Clinton because she is a woman and is navigating uncharted territory. Of course, it's ok to critique her candidacy but let's ensure that the focal points are being held to the same standard that white men have been judged by forever rather than an impossible standard that no one could meet.