There’s a trend in nonfiction book publishing these days toward picking titles that will boost sales, rather than accurately describe the contents of the books. That’s the case for “Wolf Whistle Politics” – it’s not focused on misogyny per se. Rather, it’s a thought-provoking collection of essays about the state of feminism in the United States, given the election as president of a self-confessed sexual harasser who says he doesn’t have time to be “politically correct” about subjects such as race or women.
The term “wolf-whistle” politics is a play on the term “dog-whistle politics,” which often describes the use of racially coded covert phrases to win racist votes while overtly saying something
nonracist — a dog whistle can only be heard by “dogs.” A wolf whistle, on the other hand, is heard by everyone, but its interpretation depends on the listener’s stance on feminism. Is it sexual harassment? Or just “boys being boys?” In the arena of politics, though, it’s also the use of ad hominem statements to discredit or denigrate women — from the way they dress to the way their passionate statements are described. Our current president, of course, took this type of politics to a new low, such as with his reference during the campaign to a reporter’s “bleeding” from “wherever.”
Although the background of the book is a campaign that became to some a referendum on misogyny versus feminism, many of the authors of the articles in the book are more interested in why and how many women (including a majority of White women) came to vote for Donald Trump and why many women simply sat out the election. The consensus, with a couple of exceptions, is to look more at the limitations of the feminism represented by Hillary Clinton than the misogyny represented by Trump.
As Sarah Leonard puts it, “the most vocal support for Hillary Clinton comes from women … who have had to fight sexism to succeed in public-facing, white-collar professions and relate to Hillary’s struggle to do the same.” Clinton has become a role model for professional women who have faced and still face impediments to their advancement — her setbacks felt like their setbacks; and, even more, her successes felt like their successes. Her loss in the election felt like even more of a personal tragedy for these women than for progressives as a whole.
But what about working-class women, poor women and women of color? As Leonard puts it, “It is absolutely possible to fight sexism at work, come home, and abuse the help. One could argue that Hillary has done this on a national scale.”
Kirsten West Savali points out that “Third-way politics, to which Clinton subscribes, is progressive on most social issues and to the right on most economic issues, reaffirming the capitalist structure that keeps people of color oppressed, while lulling some into believing that substantive progress is being made.”
Liza Featherstone claims that Sanders’ agenda, even though it wasn’t framed as a feminist one, supported policies that would benefit women even more than men, including single-payer health care, a raise in the minimum wage and reduced college tuition.
One of Clinton’s signature efforts in the ’90s was so-called welfare reform, and her bias at that time was clear: The purpose of the “reform” was to push women on welfare into the workforce, something that was entirely consistent with her brand of feminist. Welfare reform was a disaster for many women — rather than empowering them, it disempowered them by making them more vulnerable to sexual domination and harassment. Featherstone points out that while “neoliberal” feminism asserts the right not to have a child for economic reasons, a more expansive feminism “would assert, with equal force, the right to have one, with the economic security that motherhood demands.”
This isn’t to deny that a major factor in Clinton’s defeat was sexism, and Rebecca Solnit details that, calling out sexism on the left as well as the right, seeing that as leading to the refusal of many progressives to support Clinton after Bernie Sanders was defeated in the primaries, and the expression of sexism from the left as well as the right on social media.
Among the articles that directly address misogyny in American society, one of the best is Moira Weigel’s history of the term “politically correct,” which, as she points out, originated as a sarcastic reaction to dogmatism in the 1970s left by the left. But it is now a term used to distinguish the speaker from the political “other,” regardless of the merits of the case.
The silver lining of the electoral loss, as Naomi Wolf points out, is that the White middle-class women at the head of the women’s movement are having to look at intersectionality — at how class and race affect women — as never before. The organizing of the enormous women’s march, which put Angela Davis on stage next to Scarlett Johansson, is a sign the movement is trying to be truly inclusive. If that movement can hang together, wolf-whistle politics might have actually inspired a reaction that will create a lasting transformation in this society.
Book reviews appear regularly in our publication. View pevious reviews. Check out more articles from the full July 12 issue.
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