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Sexism and the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

by Derrick Clifton | Northwestern University

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: September 25, 2012
Derrick Clifton headshot Derrick Clifton

It’s hard being a female leader in a male-dominated society. Following the culmination of the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike, I’m sure Karen Lewis would agree.

What started as weeks of debate mostly confined within Chicago’s city limits became a national conversation on collective bargaining. You could call it a revival of old tension leftover from teachers’ strikes earlier this year in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker’s attempts to undermine labor unions.

But there was something different this time around.

Karen Lewis became the national face of the teachers’ strike in Chicago, naturally stemming from her role as CTU president. But her prominence created an unfortunate diversion for pundits, journalists and members of the general public. Discussions often drifted away from teachers’ demands, becoming referendums on Lewis’s perceived femininity, appearance and attitude.

Reuters characterized Lewis as the “fiery, frumpy former teacher leading Chicago’s striking teachers.” That’s while online comment boards flooded with denigrating characterizations of Lewis like “Java the Hut” or a “potential left tackle on the Chicago Bears’ offensive line.” Others pulled out the ages-old stops used to dismiss feminist and female leaders as hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians.

Even Gloria Steinem heralded the strike efforts of Chicago’s 87 percent female teacher workforce, calling upon the media to ensure “that women are part of this story — as teachers, parents, union members, and as journalists.” Still, as the woman near the center of the story, Lewis’s style of dress, minimal makeup and status as a plus-sized woman became focal points of a conversation about education reforms.

Yet her male counterparts weren’t subject to the same critiques. It’s a double-standard that remains all too common with women in workplaces and positions of leadership, where their physical characteristics and feminine sensibilities are measured as criteria for job performance.

It even eerily reminds me of the 2008 presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton’s uphill battle with voter discomfort over her gender presentation and perceived femininity. She donned pantsuits rather than skirts, opted for a shorter haircut and positioned herself aggressively and competitively against Barack Obama. She was panned for being “too robotic” and not “feminine enough.” But when Hillary blinked away a few tears during a discussion with reporters prior to the New Hampshire primary, she was castigated for showing emotion.

She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t.

While not wielding nearly as much political clout or pressure as Hillary did in 2008, Karen Lewis faced a similar dilemma during the strike.

When she spoke, it wasn’t simply a matter of her proposed policy alternatives and outlook on the negotiation process. From the start, Lewis made her opinions known about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, going as far to call him a “liar” and a “bully.” She often spoke with with a passion reflecting the teachers’ struggle.

Let’s be real here, she faced off with a mayor infamous for profanity-laden tirades and shady intimidation tactics, not former president Jimmy Carter. But her emotions and approach became the subject of intense scrutiny and ire.

If Lewis had any explanation for adopting an aggressive front as leader of the teachers’ strike, no one was interested in questioning why or how. Instead, she was dismissed as an angry, unrefined and irrational activist who needed a softer sell to be effective. Her sharp-wit and fiery tongue weren’t viewed as tools utilized in raising criticisms intended to improve Chicago’s education policy. Rather, she was labelled a whiner and a loud sass mouth.

These comments and characterizations are more than harsh banter typically exchanged in political discussion forums. The remarks reflect an overall disdain, discomfort and even fear of female leadership in business and political arenas typically dominated by males, many of whom are white.

Instead of fostering a genuine discussion of Lewis’s leadership ability, she became popularized as the Angry Black Woman (ABW). Because Lewis loudly expresses the grievances of teachers, she was mocked as a perpetual nagger. While societal norms dictate she be more passive, subordinate and invisible, Lewis boldly directed criticism towards her male counterparts. And because she confronted three men in power — Brizard, Emanuel and Vitale —  Lewis was perceived as emasculating.

Unfortunately, our policing of her image and emotional displays came from a shameful effort to enforce these sexist modes of behavioral control.

If there are lessons to be learned from the teachers’ strike, we can safely bet that there’s still a long road ahead to dismantling stereotypes of women in positions of leadership. Clearly, more than a few glass ceilings have yet to be shattered.

Only when the conversation evolves from makeup vs. no makeup, dress vs. pantsuit, and passive vs. aggressive can we really claim to have fully incorporated female leaders as equitable participants in the political process.

Derrick Clifton Derrick Clifton served as a columnist and opinion editor for The Daily Northwestern for two years until his June 2012 graduation. Derrick and his works have been featured by various publications including Gawker, National Review Online and Northwestern Magazine, which named him one of eight “Seniors to Watch” from the Class of 2012. Aside from writing, he’s usually working as a business communicator, singing in the car or drinking copious amounts of Fresca. Feel free to send him a chirp @DerrickClifton or say hey at his blog about social justice and pop culture, DailyDerrick.com.

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