So here's the latest mystery media meme: If Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't become the Democratic presidential nominee, "women" will be upset.
Yeah, you know, "women."
The idea has been building. In January, Gloria Steinem wrote a New York Times Op-Ed article complaining that "gender is probably the most restricting force in American life. ... Black men were given the vote a half-century before women ... and generally have ascended to positions of power ... before any women." In other words: Support Clinton, or ally yourself with the forces of sexist oppression. Later that month, ABC News reported: "Women Angry ... Some Say Oprah Is a 'Traitor' for Endorsing Obama and not Clinton." It was "Obama versus the sisterhood" in a March article in this paper.
By mid-May, as Clinton's odds of gaining the nomination dwindled, the assertion that "women" were getting upset became ever more common. "Women Threaten Obama Boycott," screamed ABC's Political Punch blog. Ouch! From as far away as Australia, headlines pondered the "backlash from women to Hillary Clinton's almost certain defeat."
It's a compelling story line -- and it's also wrong. It's wrong for assuming that women, as a group, share a unified set of political views, and doubly wrong for the underlying assumption that women should automatically favor female political candidates.
First, the headlines notwithstanding, Democratic "women" are quite unlikely to boycott Barack Obama in November. According to a May 16-18 Gallup poll, women, as a group, prefer Obama to Clinton by a margin of 49% to 46%.
Is it possible that some female Clinton supporters will boycott Obama if he's the nominee? Sure. Some male Clinton supporters may do the same. There will always be voters who are loyal to a candidate rather than to a party. Yet no one's writing headlines that read "Men Anguished by Likely Clinton Defeat," though surely some men out there are shedding a hormonal tear or two. (Bill, we feel your pain!)
But behind the obvious empirical falsehood -- the lingering myth that women as a group favor Clinton over Obama -- lies a deeper and more troubling assumption: that women should favor Clinton over Obama. Because she's a woman. Because we live in a sexist world. Because women are better than men, more nurturing, less aggressive and warlike.
Uh, well. ... That last bit, a cherished delusion long shared both by feminists and male romantics, has been punctured by harsh reality more than a few times. Think Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady.
Or, if you want a more up-to-the-minute example, think of Malika Aroud, a 48-year-old Moroccan-born Belgian woman profiled in Wednesday's New York Times.
"One of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe," Aroud is blazing a trail for women in the male-dominated world of Al Qaeda supporters. "Normally in Islam the men are stronger than the women, but I prove that it is important to fear God -- and no one else," she explains. She wears an Islamic black veil outside, but inside, she wears a black T-shirt and slippers "monogrammed in gold with the letters SEXY." Through extremist websites and blogs, she encourages Muslim men to take up arms against the West, and advises Westerners that "Vietnam is nothing compared to what awaits you on our lands.
Want to guess whether Al Qaeda will be gentler and more nurturing if Aroud should somehow take the helm?
Right. I won't be taking up Aroud as a feminist icon.
As for Clinton, don't expect a kinder, gentler administration from her: She's been at pains to assure voters that she can rival any man when it comes to unswerving bellicosity.
Vote for war in Iraq? Been there, done that.
Obliterate Iran? Can do.
Innocently reference Robert Kennedy's assassination? Just telling it like it is.
We do live in a world full of ugly, lingering sexism, and yes, plenty of it has been directed at Clinton. But we also face plenty of ugly, lingering racism -- some of it exploited by the Clinton campaign -- as well as a collapsing economy, potentially devastating climate change, two ongoing wars, instability in critical parts of the globe, an ever-present threat of nuclear proliferation and the hostility of a solid portion of the world's population.
With so many evils to worry about, why should women feel constrained to support the candidate who happens to have two X chromosomes -- especially when that candidate has gone out of her way to insist that she can be just as bellicose as the most testosterone-addled male?