Thursday, September 12, 2013

Yellen vs. Summers As A Metaphor

Atrios posted on the nomination of the next chief of Federal Reserve.  The forerunners have been defined as Lawrence Summers and Janet Yellen.  Summers looks to be the one the president prefers.

The big difference between the two is in gender.  Yellen has ladybits, Summers has talked about the ladybits in the past, wondering about the role of biology in women's lesser presence in the STEM field.  So the choice between two professionals also lends itself to all sorts other choices, a murky underground where things slither and creep and crawl, and a great opportunity for brawls about gender and such.

But that's not what Atrios wrote about (that was me).  He pointed out this:

One reason the (likely) failure to nominate Yellen as the next Fed Chief is such a disappointment is that it will miss an incredible opportunity to give the job to a woman for the first time. She has the experience. No one really denies she's qualified, except to suggest she's insufficiently bro-y. And these opportunities don't come up all the time. Due to historical extreme explicit discrimination against women, and existing barriers (including discrimination) big and small, fewer women rise up close enough to the top that getting the top job is realistic. It's reason enough to give her the job. It's an opportunity.

It is, I think, one reason for the disappointment of some Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008. While it hopefully happens more and more, at the moment the likelihood of women getting close enough to reach the top is just lower. One only has to look at the gender balance of governors and senators, the people who have a realistic shot at getting the nomination, to see this. Of course a similar issue existed for her main opponent at the time.

The way I always thought about such nominations in high places, from my feminist point of view, is that they serve to change ideas about what women (or minorities etc.) can do, that they widen the social gender norms, that they give us weapons against those who come and tell us that women (or blacks) are not good at anything to do with the command roles in the public sector and so on.  And mostly I think that approach is the correct one, given what has happened in many fields where the women were a curiosity in the past and where they now are just like the men in the fields, no better or worse.

For example, male medical school students used to fight tooth and nail against women's admittance in the nineteenth century England.   Now women can be physicians in all countries of the world, and one never hears the argument that women cannot cope in that job.  But without  being allowed to try a job, no evidence of that coping can come about.

Now juxtapose this argument with the more recent strand of feminism which suggests that women (or people of color) already close to the top of the hierarchy don't deserve any special push from feminists (or other social justice movements).  We should aim our effort at those who are truly suffering and work at the bottom rungs of the societal ladders only.

And there's truth in that, because of the relative levels of suffering.  But there's also truth in that work which tries to change societal norms, to reduce misogyny of a certain type, and sometimes that work requires paying attention to people who are already doing very well but who are treated in a  certain way because of their gender, race, sexual preference and so on.

So I'd prefer to have several arrows in my quiver, to talk and chew gum at the same time, to make a nice mess of metaphors.  One reason for that multiplicity of objectives is that the government matters and other institutions matter and that we want to have them representative of the population so that the specific concerns of different groups are fairly represented.  In my idealistic moments I think that may also help in the laws we need to work better lives for those who are poor and suffering.  In my more realistic movements I understand that those who have risen through the system to some extent must have the values of the system.