Monday, May 03, 2010

More Than Mere Words

This story came across my line of sight last week, and I felt I had to address it in today's edition of Small Town Newspaper. The 13th district is about an hour from Small Town, just for your reference. Someone has commented online with a long list of sexist remarks made about conservative female politicians and asked why haven't spoken out about those, but I'd like to point out that not one of those remarks was made by an official political party—every single one came from an opinion writer or comedian. I believe party officials should be held to a higher standard. My opinion piece for the week:

Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio’s 13th district is an accomplished individual. As a freshman in the House, she has received awards from groups ranging from veterans to health care advocates to senior citizens to farmers to educators. Before being elected to Congress, she served in the Ohio State House for eight years and was a labor lawyer before that. So, you can imagine her surprise when a statement appeared in the Medina County republican newsletter telling voters to “take Betty Sutton out of the House and send her back to the kitchen.”

When called to task on the offensive remark, Bill Heck, chairman of the Medina County GOP, said it was nothing more than campaign rhetoric, which is to say the words have no significant meaning and serve no purpose other than to get the attention of voters.

Medina County republican leaders also have said the statement was not intended to suggest women don’t belong in government. Sutton’s name was included in a short list of democratic leaders being challenged. Voters were asked to “replace” Rep. John Boccieri and to “fire” Sen. Harry Reid, but they were specifically asked to send Sutton “back to the kitchen.” Even in this context, those responsible for the newsletter see no sexism in their statement. They merely offer words to the voters.

I can’t speak for Sutton’s political record beyond acknowledging the praise she’s received, but I do know something about words. I know they are powerful, and they can pack a meaningful punch. Essays have inspired revolutions, speeches have stirred nations toward renewed patriotism and threats have provoked international confrontations. All mere words.

In politics especially, words are chosen carefully and with intent. And like sticks and stones, they can cause damage as surely as a physical blow.

While on the surface a statement that plays on the words “house” and “kitchen” may seem witty, the phrase “back to the kitchen” carries historic weight that makes it demeaning and offensive. It hearkens back to an era when women were confined to the home, out of the way and out of earshot of public discourse.

Since the colonial era, women in this country have struggled for equality even in the basics of everyday life. As hard as I find it to believe as a modern-era woman, they had to fight for equal education, for the right to own property, for fair legal treatment, for the right to vote, for equal pay and for political representation.

By and large, women have finally been accepted as equal to men, but some of the biggest advancements have only been made within the last generation or two. Many of today’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers remember only hoping for the rights my daughters and I claim without question. They lived in a society that kept them in their place, in the kitchen, so to speak; but now they and the rest of us belong in a place of our choosing, whether it be in the workforce, at home with our families or even in Congress.

After what our society has been through to achieve gender equality, using a statement like “back to the kitchen” with all of its connotations cannot be waved away as harmless campaign rhetoric. It cannot be excused as acceptable political language anymore than can hate speech or a racial slur.

John Adams said, “Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.” I believe what the republican leadership of Medina County has done goes beyond the fair use of words. It is a clear abuse of words, and it cheapens the political process by distracting the voters away from legitimate issues.

Inform them of Sutton’s actions in Congress or address her ideology if those are in opposition to your own. Speak to her voting record if you feel she has failed to represent your district, but choose your words responsibly. When you abuse them by willfully belittling an entire gender and dismiss your remarks as simply part of politics, you do nothing more than drive a wedge into our already divided society. And you fail to demonstrate the leadership our nation so desperately needs.


dive said...

Three cheers for Righteous Robyn!
A thoroughly wonderful and very necessary piece. Sheesh, that "back to the kitchen" thing got me riled up.
Have none of your politicians heard of Mary Woolstonecraft? 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women' was published in 1792, for crying out loud. Are they living even further in the past than that?
I hope that misogynist moron is married and that his wife kicks him the hell out.
Yay you for telling it like it is.

MmeBenaut said...

Yes, bravo indeed Robyn. This is a fine essay itself on the way in which dirty tactics can be employed by a flippant, seemingly innocent remark. As a former political speechwriter, I know a thing or two about this and you are absolutely right about the connotations of this particular remark. The idiot who opened his mouth without thinking will feel a backlash from his female (and hopefully some male) constituency. So again, bravo to you for enlightening your local population. And in my humble opinion, the member herself owes you a generous "thank you". I hope you at least get a letter in the mail but better still a personal visit.