I caught up with Caroline Heldman, Occidental College political science professor and feminist speaker, for a discussion on sex, gender, and politics. Heldman has appeared as a commentator on numerous political talk shows, on Ted Talks, and in the documentary, Miss Representation. In addition to her career as an educator, Heldman co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter. Her work has been published in numerous scholarly and literary publications, including the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, Ms. Magazine, and The Daily Beast
I first came across your work after watching Miss Representation, in which you spoke on the portrayals of women in politics. It must have been excruciating for you to watch the 2008 elections, which were fraught with sexist language towards both Palin and Clinton. Can you reflect a bit on how it felt to see that behavior, both as both a political scientist and as a staunch feminist?
Unfortunately, I was not surprised to see the open sexism aimed at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008. Similar language was used with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Elizabeth Dole in 2000. Women who dare to enter the highest echelons of politics invariably face their gender being used against them. I applauded Clinton for pointing out the sexism she faced—from losing an hour of sleep every day on the campaign trail just so she could meet societal expectations of female beauty to being called sexist slurs and facing protesters with “iron my shirt” signs.
After the 2008 elections, things didn’t really improve for women in the 2010 midterm election. Can you summarize the trends you noticed from the start of the Bush Administration to now, in terms of women in politics?
Women have enjoyed exponential gains in political and corporate leadership positions, starting in the 1970s, but in the last decade, this positive trend has stalled. Women [hold office in] less than 20 percent of Congress, are fewer than 5 percent of CEOs, and we’ve seen a significant decline in the number of women in state leadership positions in the past decade. Progress is not linear, especially when the push is against something as old and powerful as patriarchy. The biggest threat to progress at this point is believing it has already been achieved when it has not. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the 2008 election where many voters did not consider Hillary Clinton’s run to be “historic.”
Do you have any hunches about how the 2014 midterms will turn out (for women)?
We won’t gain over 20 percent of the seats in Congress, even though women comprise 50 percent of the population and 53 percent of the voting population!
Everyone I’ve spoken with about getting more women into politics says that women will often win if they run, but they have to be asked to run. Yet, many women refrain from running because they feel they cannot both run for office and be devoted enough to their families. As women will always be mothers, do you see any possible changes to the common abstention of women from running for office?
The barriers to women running for public office start in childhood when girls are discouraged from being ambitious. This message continues through adulthood where we are rewarded for our beauty and child-rearing more than professional accomplishments. Not only do we need a sea change in the way we think about politics and leadership and ambition—all seen as male domains—we also need a sea change in institutions. Studies indicate that political parties recruit and groom male candidates more than female candidates, and they select male candidates for positions they are likely to win. It’s not happenstance, for example, that Ferraro and Palin were put on losing tickets as “Hail Mary” attempts to turn out female voters. Beyond socialization and party biases, media coverage is a major obstacle to the success of female candidates. This was evident in the gendered and sexist coverage of the 2008 election.
I watched some of the clips of your appearances on Fox News and was curious about how you got into that. In the end, what was the result in attempting to engage in dialogue with those pundits?
I was recruited by a Fox News producer to appear on the network. My end goal was simply to interrupt the standard Fox script with some basic points, based in research, that might cause a few listeners to reconsider the Fox paradigm.
I started this website out of concern for the many very talented women writers who, like potential politicians, abstain from following their dream out of fear of rejection. Can you speak about any similar self-doubts and insecurities that you’ve seen among your women students?
The impostor syndrome, the idea that whatever skills and accomplishments one has are fake and they will be discovered as a fraud, is particularly acute for women and more so for women of color. We are brought up in a social world that sends constant messages of female inferiority. We aren’t considered legitimate possessors of knowledge. We aren’t considered to be funny. Popular culture rarely tells stories of our lives. High culture rarely tells stories of our lives. And when we age out of being a valuable physical commodity in middle age, we are socially erased. I have witnessed the doubt and insecurity of women throughout the life course, and it is depressing to think that so many of us have lived half of our lives before we figure out the facade of male expertise and knowledge perpetrated by patriarchy.
What do you tell the emerging women leaders that you come across?
My advice is to stop worrying so much about what other people think. So many of us live lives in constant fear—fear of not getting attention for the way we look, fear of opening our mouths and saying something that makes us look stupid. Most women I know play constant tapes in their heads that cause them to constantly worry about what other people think. We need to worry far less about what other people think and strive to achieve high personal standards that we set for ourselves. This is an especially good strategy in a world where merit matters less than prejudices. Women face a constant, non-meritorious denial of our expert status in every professional domain, so if we base our worth on the evaluation of others, we will have a skewed sense of accomplishment.
Caroline Heldman’s Appearance at Tedx Youth
In attempting to plan a course for women in management positions in the media at my job, I was cautioned by a (female) co-worker that this course could possibly alienate men. I was disappointed to receive that reaction from a peer.
So, put in other terms: When we push back against patriarchy, we shouldn’t upset patriarchy. I reject the cowardly notion that oppressed people should preserve the feelings of those who benefit from their oppression in their struggle to not be oppressed. If patriarchy means that men receive non-meritorious value over women, then, by definition, overturning this non-meritorious system is going to cause pain and alienation. If I personally benefit from a system simply based on my identity and someone comes along and points that out, I am likely to get defensive, but the pain of losing my unearned privilege is the price that I must pay if I want equality. These same arguments were used during the Civil Rights Movement—that people of color should try their darnedest not to upset white people in their struggle for freedom, but as the great Frederick Douglass put it, “if there is not struggle, there is no progress.” We should be less concerned about the feelings of those who benefit from gender oppression and more concerned about the fact that this system of power is morphing instead of disappearing to preserve these unearned benefits.
In my field (the media), I suspect that many of us young women are on the same page, except we are silent. Maybe our attempt to succeed in the media makes us silence ourselves. Does one bring their feminism to work with them?
As I see it, the two approaches to feminist change via institutions. One approach is to work from the outside through feminist agitation, like protest, public information campaigns, alternative institution building, etc. The other approach is to work from the inside to gain a position of power from which you can change the institution. The second approach often involves strategically staying quiet in order to move up the ranks to gain a position of significant power, and this is a painful strategy for committed feminists. I am a firm believer of strategically using all of the tools at our disposal to get into power so that our voices matter. Raising concerns about sexist representations in film as a production assistant simply does not carry the same weight as a director or a producer raising those same concerns. Feminist networks within organizations are an important part of maintaining sanity in sexist workplaces/professions where we will face professional retaliation if we share feminist critiques.
In addition to being an educator, tell me about your work with the NOLA Women’s Shelter. What was your connection to NOLA at that point?
I had never been to New Orleans before, but I traveled there the week Katrina hit to provide media coverage. I ended up working with a rescue and relief organization, and have worked in New Orleans ever since. The failure of the government was so apparent and appalling, and so clearly racist; I feel that I owe a debt to the people of New Orleans since we failed them so deeply. I have worked with several rebuilding organizations and worked with students and activists across the nation to co-found the New Orleans Women’s Shelter and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum. The Lower Ninth Ward has been virtually wiped off the map—only 20 percent of residents have returned. I wish more Americans knew about and cared more about this continuing injustice.
Of all the incredible work that you’ve done, what do you have the greatest passion for?
My greatest passion is to work for those who have faced injustice at the hands of those in power. I am drawn to the idea that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived,” so I have little time or patience for performing for others or being afraid of how my words or actions might offend others in fights against injustice. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret all of the things I would have said or done if only I had had more courage. I don’t wait for courage—I do it anyway.
Stay tuned for my next feminist profile at the end of April.
Complete infographic from featured image can be found here.