As a progressive writer, feminist, and activist from the cold, cold state of Minnesota, I’m going to do something that is very difficult for me. I’m going to try and look at the exchange between Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Minnesota’s own rabidly conservative congresswoman, Rep. Michele Bachmann with an open mind. Was Specter being arrogant and patriarchal when he told Bachmann to “act like a lady?” Or has the comment been blown out of porportion by a party of people who ironically enough love to tell women what they are really thinking?
First, the background:
Specter’s remarks came during a special broadcast from Washington of the Giordano show to mark the first year of President Obama’s term.
Specter, the 79-year-old Republican-turned-Democrat, who is facing a tough primary, and Bachmann, 53, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, were Giordano’s first guests.
At one point during an exchange over the health-care bill, Specter noted that Bachmann had said she voted for prosperity.
“Well, prosperity wasn’t a bill,” the Pennsylvania senator began to explain.
“Well, why don’t we make it a bill?” said Bachmann, talking over him.
“Now wait a minute,” Specter said. “Don’t interrupt me. I didn’t interrupt you. Act like a lady.”
“Well, I think I am a lady,” Bachmann said.
“I think you are, too,” Specter said. “That’s why I’m treating you like one. But just don’t interrupt me.”
Needless to say, conservatives have been completely up at arms over this comment. “Jan Larimer, cochair of the Republican National Committee, said yesterday that Specter’s remarks were ‘disrespectful’ and ‘demeaning to all women.’” Bachmann is decrying his “arrogance,” saying he “basically told me to sit down and be quiet.”
She’s right. He did tell her to sit down and be quiet. But that was because she was interrupting him.
With nearly 30 years in the senate under his belt, the rules of civility that are second nature in congressional debate are no doubt reflexive to him. Congresspeople refer to each other as “esteemed collegue,” “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.” The term “lady” to him, both from his history in office and from being of an older generation would not be as loaded as it could be for those of us under the age of 60.
Then, there is the fact that Bachmann wasn’t upset by his term, but for being told to stop talking. Her response back, “I think I am a lady,” shows clearly that she embraces that word and the characteristics implied by it.
Of course, the Republicans have taken the clip and run, in an attempt to help Specter’s opponent in the next election. And, without the smallest trace of irony, the RNC is claiming Specter is treating women like “second class citizens” (because taking away their rights to their own bodies, on the other hand, is NOT treating them like second class citizens).
But so much of that is the regular drumbeats of election day politics. Find an alleged scandal, have multiple people use it in a chance to advance a candidate, and see how much fundraising you can get from it.
Specter has now appologized to Bachmann for his remarks, hoping to get the incident off the news and blogs. And the broohaha will likely die down without ever making it far beyond the right wing echo chamber. As one local progressive female politician put it, “I was angry with him over the Thomas-Hill hearings [another incident in which he was accused of talking down to women]. But I forgave him, because of all he has done for women on every other front. In supporting the Violence Against Women Act, choice, NIH funding, equal pay, and other concerns, Arlen Specter has been there for the women of Pennsylvania.”
I’d have a few choice words for people who try to misuse claims of sexism to advance a party that revels in its own love of subjugating women, but I won’t print them here.
After all, I am a lady.