On April 12, 2015, Hillary Clinton made the long-awaited announcement that she’s entering the 2016 U.S. presidential race. If she wins, she'll become the first female president of the United States of America.
Part of the public discourse around her candidacy is the issue of sexism; is Hillary being treated differently (worse) because she’s a woman. Comments in the press during her 2008 election bid included the following:
Chris Matthews, a host on MSNBC, called Mrs. Clinton a “she-devil” and said she had gotten as far as she had only because her husband had “messed around.”
Mike Barnicle, a panelist on MSNBC, said that Mrs. Clinton was “looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” Tucker Carlson, also on MSNBC, said, “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
The New York Times wrote about Mrs. Clinton’s “cackle” and The Washington Post wrote about her cleavage.
Ken Rudin, an editor at National Public Radio, appeared on CNN, where he equated Mrs. Clinton with the actress Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” “She’s going to keep coming back, and they’re not going to stop her," Mr. Rudin said. (Seelye, 2008)
Mrs. Clinton is not the first recent presidential candidate to be attacked on grounds that seem, at best, tangentially related to her political positions. Many people share the opinion that Barack Obama, the first black president, has been subjected to innumerable insults that have less to do with public policy and more to do with the color of his skin:
Former President Jimmy Carter stepped into the fray this week, stating the obvious: "intensely demonstrated animosity" toward Obama, the 39th president said, is "based on the fact that he is a black man." (Alternet Staff,2009)
This type of attack in not new. Fifty five years ago during his presidential election, John Kennedy was compelled to answer charges that, as the first Catholic president, he would in some way use the office of the presidency to force Catholic doctrine onto the nation. Most baby boomers remember this portion of John Kennedy’s speech delivered September 12, 1960:
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured – perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.( NPR,2007)
With so many examples of negative and ugly reactions to national “firsts” (not all reactions to the “firsts” are negative; Obama and Kennedy did get elected), it’s easy to draw the conclusion that we are a nation of sexists, racists, and religious bigots. And maybe we are.
Or maybe there’s something more basic at work here. Something fundamental to all living things. It could be that homeostasis is the common denominator driving what can otherwise be viewed simplistically as bigoted behavior in politics.
Homeostasis refers to the ability of a system to react to external stressors in a way that enables the system to maintain a level of internal consistency. Homeostatic mechanisms are necessary for the integrity and survival of any system.
Homeostasis is a concept from systems theory. A system is any entity comprised of interdependent, integrated parts functioning together. Systems theory is concerned with the nature and functioning of complex systems in nature, society, and science. It is a framework for investigating and describing any group of objects that work together to produce some result. Among other things, systems can be mechanical, like a computer, or living, like a human body.
Mammalian body temperature is a good example of a homeostatic process occurring in the body system of an individual organism. Perspiration, shivering, and other mechanisms are employed by the body to help maintain an internal temperature that is conducive to optimal functioning of the organism. If the organism is knocked out of homeostasis for too long, perhaps by a high fever, or by being exposed to extreme cold for an excessive period of time, the organism is put at risk. Consequences of being thrown out of homeostasis through extreme internal temperature variation can range from minor discomfort to illness to death.
Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and family researcher, developed a Natural Systems Theory that applied mainly to the human being and human family systems, but was thought also to apply to society at large. (Bowen, 1978) Bowen hypothesized that whenever one individual in a relationship system stepped out of the homeostasis of that system, either in positive or negative ways, there would be a predictable change back reaction.
In the following quote, Bowen refers to the family, but the same principle can be applied to society as a whole:
When any (society) member makes a move toward (growth and change), the (societal) emotional system communicates a three-stage verbal and non-verbal message: (1) You are wrong. (2) Change back. (NPR,2007) If you do not, these are the consequences. Generally the messages contain a mixture of subtle sulks, hurt feelings, and angry exchanges, but some communicate all three stages in words. (5)
At that point, the person attempting to change can (1) Give in to the emotional pressure, thereby restoring the existing homeostasis, or (2) Hold onto his/her principles without arguing, defending or running away, thereby changing the homeostasis to a new, higher level of complexity and maturity.
This pattern is so predictable that progress can always be identified as a consequence of the following steps:
2. Change Back Reaction
3. Refusal to give in to the change back reaction
4. Progressive change
In fact, it is thought that change back reactions are so predictable that if there isn’t one, there hasn’t been significant movement toward change in the first place. This may mean that societal growth has always been accomplished through resistance to a change back effort.
Change back reactions can be seen at all levels, from the individual, to the family, to the larger society:
Many health experts believe the human body has a homeostatic set point for weight, which accounts for why it is so difficult for some people to lose weight and keep it off.
After many years of a wife threatening to leave her husband for excessive drinking, he finally joins AA and quits. Three months later, she says he’s “changed” and threatens him that she wants a divorce.
A mother says it will “break her heart” if her son marries a girl from a different religion, even though the family had never been particularly observant before.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus when ordered to do so by the bus driver. This resulted in her arrest (the change back reaction).
Change back reactions are so powerful that it often takes many efforts to overcome them. Claudette Colvin was arrested for resisting bus segregation months before Rosa Parks, but for various reasons (perhaps succumbing to the change back reactions) local black leaders decided not to publicize her efforts. (Colvin,2015)
At the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Jim Crow laws and customs were prevalent throughout the American South. Black protestors deliberately pushed back against the existing homeostasis by eating at whites’ only lunch counters, marching in the streets, and prevailing upon government officials to take action. Change back reactions came in the form of arrests, violent altercations between police and protestors, and other expressions in support of the status quo. With enough effort, however, the homeostasis shifted. It is now unthinkable that such institutionalized racism as “whites only” facilities would be tolerated in the U.S.
John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton have something in common with Rosa Parks. Their decisions to run for the presidency put them in the position of pushing back against an existing homeostasis.
Whether or not one thinks Hillary has what it takes to be an effective leader of our country, it is a fact that her candidacy represents a change for our country. It is such a big change that change back reactions are not only predictable, they are probably inevitable. While it does not excuse sexist rhetoric, it does put a different spin on it.
If Hillary loses the race for the White House, no one will be able to say for sure if it was because she was the lesser candidate, or if the systemic change back forces for homeostasis were too strong. Only time will tell if our country is ready for its first woman president.
Alternet Staff (2009, September 20). 10 Horrifying Racist Attacks on Obama.
Bowen, M. (1978) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Oxford, U.K. Jason Aronson. Pp 269-282.
Claudette Colvin. In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 20, 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin
NPR (2007, December 05) Transcript: JFK’s Speech on His Religion. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600
Seelye, K.Q. (2008, June 13) Media Charged With Sexism in Clinton Coverage. The New York Times. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/us/politics/13women.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0