Thursday, January 1, 2015

Are we entering a post-sexist era in politics?

(written 11/21/14)

It’s clear that baseball has changed since the steroid era of the late ‘90s when “juice” fueled Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire battled it out to kill the home run record. Today, baseball heroes can come in small packages — like Dustin Pedroia — and hitting 30 home runs is a successful season. While there are still vestiges of baseball’s embarrassing past (i.e. Alex Rodriguez) lurking around the scene, for the most part, the sport has emerged from the post-steroid era and stepped away from its messy past.

Now that Rhode Island has elected its first woman governor, I wonder if we’ve moved into a post-sexist era in politics. Since it’s still remarkable enough to comment on, I imagine that just being a woman is still considered detrimental in politics but I hope we are not far away from a time when gender is no longer an issue upon which to comment.

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of former Sundlun staffers for one of our every-few-years dinner gatherings to catch up and visit with (now) old friends. When we worked for Governor Sundlun, we were together for many hours every week in a really challenging environment and learned a lot from each other.  Most of us were native Rhode Islanders, some with political experience but all with a shared desire to move the state forward from the bad ethical and financial problems of the late 1980s.

Now twenty-plus years later as we joked about how things had changed and laughed about the three “brick” mobile phones that the office shared, I had an eye-opening conversation with one of the women at the table. During the Sundlun years she was a super smart administrative staffer and one of the few who children while we worked in the State House. Every day she wryly shared parenting advice as she juggled sick kids, day care and a challenging job. At dinner he reminded me about how male-dominated and sexist the State House had been and how oppressed we had been as women in that environment. She told me not to forget it and to always tell my girls about what it was like so that it could never happen again.

I have to say I was a bit stunned. As one of the youngest people on staff, I didn’t have much of a frame of reference and perhaps I thought that catcalls in the halls or a “misplaced” hand was the norm. I don’t remember being particularly bothered by the atmosphere and I think I just assumed that it was all part of the working world. But to her point, it’s a world that I don’t want my girls to be part of or to experience in their lifetime. As I looked around the table I was glad to see that the offenders were not there, so perhaps like Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire, time and an intolerance for bad behavior is weeding out the worst of them. Still I feel compelled to pass along her two best pieces of advice: don’t stand for any sexist garbage in the workplace and when your kid says “my stomach feels funny” you have less than thirty seconds to get to a bathroom. If women in politics can remember both of those things, we too can be in a post-sexist era and avoid messes along the way.

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