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Democratic Front-Runners Wade Into Gender Politics


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Democrats like to say that while the GOP candidates are throwing elbow punches at each other in the presidential primary, the tone between the two Democratic front-runners has been far more collegial. But as February approaches, the friendly veneer between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has started to crack. It gets down to a fundamental challenge for the Sanders campaign - how to take Hillary Clinton to task for her policy positions without wading into gender politics. Michelle Goldberg wrote about this for Slate Magazine. She joins me on the line now. Welcome to the show, Michelle.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Hi, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Your article is titled the following, "Men Explain Hillary To Me." So if you could sum up your thesis in this piece, if you could.

GOLDBERG: The piece is actually not so much about Bernie Sanders himself. I'm a huge Sanders fan, and a lot of the women who've expressed exasperation to me over some of Sanders' supporters are also big Sanders fans. It's more about a kind of specific, sanctimonious tone from some left-wing male writers whenever women either try to point out sexism towards Hillary or even try to acknowledge that it would be meaningful to them to have the first female president. Someone will write that although she knows that Hillary is an imperfect candidate, she's also weighing the fact that it would break the 200 and plus year male lock on the presidency. And the response is this sort of sneering, well, I think we should vote for the best candidate regardless of genitals, you know? And it's sexism to take gender into account. It's this sort of mindless lecturing of women about what sexism really means.

MARTIN: Let's - understanding that a lot of this debate, you say, is happening among kind of liberal political watchers and writers. But some of this did stem from things that Bernie Sanders himself said about Hillary Clinton. Can you walk us through a couple of examples?

GOLDBERG: Well, there's two that I think are the most salient. When Bernie Sanders talked about people shouting about gun control, and Hillary Clinton said several times, well, you know, when women talk, men hear shouting. And then several men, including one of my colleagues, were outraged by what they thought was an unfair imputation of sexism. The other example that I think is more complicated comes from not Bernie Sanders, but his campaign staff, when one of them gave an interview to John Heilemann at Bloomberg and said, you know, in this kind of jokey, grinning, sarcastic tone, well, you know, we would certainly be willing to consider Hillary for vice president. We would even be willing to give her an interview. And I - and a lot of other people - heard that as incredibly patronizing and condescending.

MARTIN: But this is the rub, right? Like, I read that comment and that exchange with John Heilemann. And I thought to myself, well, this is politics. It's a dirty game. And the game is to diminish your opponents. And I could have heard Bernie Sanders' staffer making a similar comment about a male opponent, like Martin O'Malley.

GOLDBERG: I take your point, that this is something that kind of candidates use to undermine each other all of the time. Although, I think that we all know that the meaning of language changes depending on the identity of the speaker and the subject. You know, as I write in my piece, there was a reason why people bristled when Joe Biden called Barack Obama articulate in a way that they wouldn't have bristled if he had called, you know, a white man articulate. I think, like any individual example of sexism, people of good faith can disagree. What I was trying to point out in this piece and what bothers me is not so much that somebody would disagree with me or with another woman writer about what is sexist and what isn't but that immediately, it kind of degenerates into this sanctimonious outrage of how dare you suggest that people who are voting for Bernie Sanders hate women and, you know, again just becomes incredibly dismissive.

MARTIN: So you're - what you're saying is this is something that's happening within the, quote, "progressive left," that there's some kind of assumption that, oh, I'm a liberal. So I can't possibly be using language that could be construed as sexist.

GOLDBERG: Well, what I would say is this. I think that some of us - myself included - you know, had thought that we reached a point where there was maybe a consensus among progressives that achieving some sort of greater parity in representation was in and of itself an important goal. And so, again, when you hear these concerns dismissed as, well, I think it's sexist to vote for a candidate because of their gender, then you realize that this consensus that we thought was there actually isn't there. And maybe we should have realized that.

MARTIN: Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for Slate Magazine. Her most recent book is called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Michelle, thanks so much for talking with us.

GOLDBERG: Oh, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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