May 22, 2012 / Opportunity

Are We Really Content With Condescension?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

A surprising NY Times editorial from former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown entitled Obama: Stop Condescending to Women appeared on Sunday lamenting President Obama’s “paternalistic” demeanor while addressing Barnard’s all female graduating class. Ms. Brown is correct that in offering effusive and, she says, “fake praise,” it is no more than a cliché to state that ‘women are smarter than men’:

“[T]o suggest to women that they deserve dominance instead of equality is at best a cheap applause line.”

Equality is the goal, not dominance. Brown continued:

[I]n courting women, Mr. Obama’s campaign so far has seemed maddeningly off point. His message to the Barnard graduates was that they should fight for a “seat at the table” — the head seat, he made sure to add. He conceded that it’s a tough economy, but he told the grads, “I am convinced you are tougher” and “things will get better — they always do.”

But how will they get better? Current statistics are not promising…

According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, about 53.6 percent of men and women under the age of 25 who hold bachelor’s degrees were jobless or underemployed last year, the most in at least 11 years. According to the Pew Research Center, if we broaden the age group to 18- to 29-year-olds, an estimated 37 percent are unemployed or out of the work force, the highest share in more than three decades.

Brown mentioned a female friend who, two years after graduating with an impressive education, still seeks a full time job – And if she is having trouble finding a job… A number of my women friends are successful, accomplished professionals in an older demographic who have likewise been struggling to find free lance means of support, having been outsourced or replaced by much younger (and cheaper) staff. Neither end seems to be doing well.
Brown continues:

“The women I know who are struggling in this economy couldn’t be further from the fictional character of Julia, presented in Mr. Obama’s Web ad, “The Life of Julia,” a silly and embarrassing caricature based on the assumption that women look to government at every meaningful phase of their lives for help.”

Ms. Brown shares several anecdotes of female relatives and friends, entrepreneurs all, who have fallen on hard times as the economy has gone “belly up,” stating that they rely on family to get through – not on government. Brown pointed out that while government played a role in their lives, it was far from a dominant one.
Like me, Ms. Brown came from a family where the mother was the breadwinner. She notes that “we do not need condescending messages from a president talking down to 52% of the population.” She continues:

The struggling women in my life all laughed when I asked them if contraception or abortion rights would be a major factor in their decision about this election. For them, and for most other women, the economy overwhelms everything else.
Another recent Pew Research Center survey found that voters, when thinking about whom to vote for in the fall, are most concerned about the economy (86 percent) and jobs (84 percent). Near the bottom of the list were some of the hot-button social issues.

Women cannot be defined by just one issue and for any party to claim that the “war on women” is simply about contraception is missing the point. Ms. Brown concludes that ‘Independence is what is so important to these women’:

I have always admired President Obama and I agree with him on some issues, like abortion rights. But the promise of his campaign four years ago has given way to something else — a failure to connect with tens of millions of Americans, many of them women, who feel economic opportunity is gone and are losing hope. In an effort to win them back, Mr. Obama is trying too hard. He’s employing a tone that can come across as grating and even condescending. He really ought to drop it. Most women don’t want to be patted on the head or treated as wards of the state. They simply want to be given a chance to succeed based on their talent and skills. To borrow a phrase from our president’s favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, they want “an open field and a fair chance.”

How I longed to see this Campbell Brown in 2008, when she was derided for “pillow fluffing” during a Hillary/Obama debate rather than digging under the campaign promises, flirting or platitudes of an attractive male candidate. She seemed content with condescension then. Perhaps four years of economic reality and a lack of opportunity, particularly for middle class women, has sobered her.

It is both ironic and insulting that while the President tells women to “fight for a seat at the table,” he simultaneously nixed and replaced Barnard’s original female commencement speaker, Jill Abramson, the first female Executive Editor of the NY Times. He did so without so much as a backward glance. A woman who fought for and won a seat at the table, was at the last minute told to step aside so that the President could generate a photo op in front of a female audience in an attempt to firm up poll numbers that have somewhat sagged of late. We are not expected to dwell on this mixed message, but if we do not, we are merely abetting the problem.

Continued placating via pretty words does little to counteract the unchecked disrespectful messages with which we are bombarded via mainstream media, advertisers, politicians or comedians daily. Nor does it change a work environment where women are often late to be promoted to sky high positions, and then the first to feel the boot when things go awry. See JP Morgan Chase.

A woman standing before the Barnard graduating class, sharing her own struggles and triumphs, might have made a better case to other women aspiring to succeed.

Anita Finlay in the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter’s Rude Awakening, available on Amazon in print and on Kindle. Please visit her website at

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