Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is This Sexist?

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) said he liked Janet Napolitano for Secretary of Homeland Security because:

Janet's perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.

It was an off-the-cuff remark when he didn’t know his mic was on, and CNN’s Campbell Brown is playing it up as a sexist gaffe.

Yes, it plays into a sexist stereotype that a woman with a family isn’t as hardworking as single woman or a man with a family. And yes, that stereotype is real, common, and serious.

But I don’t think that’s what Gov. Rendell was saying here. In fact, I think he would have said the same thing about a man:

"He's perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. He has no family. Perfect. He can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it."

That doesn’t sound strange or unlikely to me at all.

It’s the old trap of saying something innocuous about a specific person without thinking about how those same words can be (or have been) used by others to deride or dismiss entire groups. It's kind of like calling a politician "articulate" without thinking about the fact that he's black and so that word has some baggage. Ask Joe Biden.

My verdict: This is more of a "dude, that was stupid," rather than "dude, that was shameful," kind of thing. It’s a good example of how people unwittingly say things that play into stereotypes. These things should be pointed out so people recognize and reevaluate their own attitudes and word choices, witting or unwitting.

But gaffe? Nah.

PS: Campbell Brown points out that no one said Tom Ridge or Michael Chertoff were bad picks because they have families, but I also find it hard to believe that if Napolitano had kids Gov. Rendell would have said, "ugh, she's a terrible pick because she has a family." That's a huge leap to make, even if they're separated just by one link in the chain of logic.

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