Column: Outdated attitudes revealed

October 3, 2012



It is a telling choice of word. Hearing it used unironically, as would-be Missouri senator Todd Akin did last week, one almost feels as if Amelia Earhart never flew a plane and Sally Ride never rode a space shuttle. As if Madame C.J. Walker never made millions and Meg Whitman never made CEO. As if Lisa Leslie never dunked, Pat Benatar never rocked, Oprah Winfrey never reigned, Hillary Clinton never ran.

But that is, indeed, what the man said. In an interview last week, he complained that his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, was very aggressive in debating him, unlike her 2006 race, when she was “much more ladylike.”

Akin, last heard revealing the existence of a previously unknown mechanism in the female body that shuts down contraception in the event of “legitimate rape,” might want to pen himself a reminder to not talk about women again, ever.

This latest gaffe is somewhat reminiscent of when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted as saying candidate Barack Obama had the ability to switch off and on his “Negro dialect.” While the observation was true enough, we were still left to grapple that bizarre choice of word. There has not been a “Negro” in this country since 1969, the year Reid turned 30. How is it he failed, for 40 years, to get the memo?

One wonders the same about Akin. The issue is not dated terminology, per se, but rather, the suspicion that it reflects a dated worldview — particularly with Akin, given his belief in a rape-resistant uterus.

But though he is the latest, he is hardly the only man who has sought recently to police the decorum of female lawmakers. Consider the 2011 email Rep. Allen West sent Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz telling her, “you are not a lady” and “shall not be accorded due respect from me.” And then there’s then-Sen. Arlen Specter’s 2010 shot at Rep. Michele Bachmann during a radio interview: “I’ll treat you like a lady. So act like one.”

One struggles to imagine a male lawmaker being chided to behave in a gentlemanly fashion. The person doing the chiding would be laughed into oblivion and deservedly so — the complaint belongs to the era of handlebar moustaches and high-wheeled bikes.

This is not to say that a man ought not strive to behave in ways that reflect class, refinement and manners. He should. A woman should, too. In a nation so rude that a member of Congress hectors the president during a televised speech, many of us could stand to act as if we’d had the benefit of home training.

But this is not about that. It is, rather, about an arrogant, condescending and paternalistic mindset that says a woman cannot be tough, aggressive, competitive, smart or feisty, that if she embodies those traits, so prized in men, she does so at the cost of her own femininity.

In this construction, being a “lady” has nothing to do with good home training, and everything to do with being properly deferential and submissive in the presence of testosterone. And yes, you may just want to chalk all this up to a difference of values, to say that Akin, West and Specter are just old-fashioned guys having trouble finding their way in a newfangled world. But to do that is give them a pass they do not deserve. It is to tell a little girl she must truncate the sprawl and adventure of her personality, prune it back until it fits into a small, dainty box marked “ladylike.”

That would be a tragedy. And a betrayal.

There is, frankly, a point at which being “old-fashioned” becomes being stubborn, denying unwelcome, unsettling and self-evident change. These fellows are well past that point and our message to them ought to be simply this:

If you want to govern in this century, try living in it first.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


observant 5 years, 6 months ago

6:30 AM and not a single poster on yet calling Pitts a racist. All the nutcases sleeping in?

Fossick 5 years, 6 months ago

One can almost smell the disappointment.

gbulldog 5 years, 6 months ago

Democratic canidate are having a tough time defending the Democrat party and its platform. So they must become tougher. As an independant, I feel I have no choice in this election. The Democratic party goes against the moral standards and historical standards that our forfathers fought and died for. As for my faith, it is derided, just like the Muslims are doing to Christians in the Middle East. So we can end up like Syria and the Middle East. And woman, forget about the progrees made over the years. Your rights will disapear, once the Muslims take over.

voevoda 5 years, 6 months ago

  1. No Muslim takeover of the United States is pending. It's not even possible, much less likely, much less imminent.
  2. Islam does not deny the rights of women. Some radical Islamist states have drastically curtailed women's rights, but that is certainly not typical of Islamic cultures in general. Muslim-majority countries even have women heads of state--something the US has not had.
  3. Your faith (Christianity, I presume) is not derided in the United States. It isn't even derided throughout the Middle East; the situation varies considerably by country.

gbulldog 5 years, 6 months ago

Because as an independent, I believe that all elections should be non partisan. Each canidate would be required to run on their own. The primary would be open to al voters. As an example, maybe it would have been Barry vs Hillary in the general election rather than Barry vs John. As JFK once said, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future." - John F. Kennedy

If I was a Republican, I do not want to be treated like a piece of junk machinery that has outlive its usefullness. The reasons that I am an independant, is that their are bad canidates in both parties. If you do not support you party's canidates, you future in the party is limited. That is why dictors ban other political parties but their own.

Fossick 5 years, 6 months ago

"One struggles to imagine a male lawmaker being chided to behave in a gentlemanly fashion."

One does not struggle to recall male lawmakers being chided to "Man up," however, which certainly carries the same sexist connotations, handlebar mustaches aside. I surely hope Leonard will be so kind as to inform us all when that phrase reaches his proclaimed expiration date.

fiddleback 5 years, 6 months ago

The Great Recession changes people, and Todd must not be familiar with the legendary "Mad Dog McCaskill...Raised by wolves! Sold to vultures! And married to a wildebeest!"


Here's hoping the less "ladylike" senator kicks Akin's 19th century tail all the way back to his outhouse in Wildwood, MO.

Kirk Larson 5 years, 6 months ago

So if ladylike is so great, shouldn't it be just as well to ask Akin to be more ladylike? There's the rub, reenforcing the double standards for behavior in public officials.

Kirk Larson 5 years, 6 months ago

They are not equivalent. Ladylike implies demure, reserved, self-constrained. Women who are called unladylike are often also called the b-word. The like of men are often called assertive, take-charge.

5 years, 6 months ago

"Outdated" is of course the problem - like any other "style," language is cyclical and arbitrary. One might as well criticize someone for wearing bell-bottoms, at least until they pass into fashion again. At that point those who are a generation out of date are on the bleeding edge as well.

While Pitts says there have been no negroes in America since 1969 (and one wonders therefore who the UNCF gives all its money to), we have had a series of euphemisms - black, colored, negro, Afro-American, people of color, and finally the unwieldy African American - that all mean the same thing and are applied by the same people to the same people. That euphemism treadmill also shows no evidence of stopping, so the same language police tut-tutting others for not using "African American" will be those who tut-tut others for still using it when it passes out of fashion in a few years. It would be highly ironic were it to be replaced by "negro."

Ladylike is different. Sexist it very well may be, harboring as it does social expectations based on sex, but words mean things. A woman who acts in ways traditionally associated with men - and particularly boorish ones at that - by being "tough, aggressive, competitive, smart or feisty" does so at the cost of her own femininity. Perhaps femininity is not worth having in our sexually disoriented world, but let's not pretend the word means nothing. It certainly harkens to another time, but like the euphemism, there's no guarantee that time is not in our future as well as our past.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 6 months ago

This man is actually on the House SCIENCE COMMITTEE!!

begin60 5 years, 6 months ago

Talk about outdated, paternalistic attitudes! They are way too prevalent in Lawrence, KS for my taste. Think whatever bigoted way you want, but no one has the right to harass and terrorize complete strangers by aggressively getting up in their business with their backward attitudes. People who behave in this way and feel entitled to extort gratitude from complete strangers need a lot of help with their brains. I'm a patient, generous, and open-minded person, but even nice people have their limits. I can't believe that the amazingly backward people who so aggressively stuck their prejudiced noses up in my business in Lawrence still exist in the 21st century world. Sons of bigots, for sure. No thanks. We do not belong in each other's stories.

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