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Rosh Hodesh – The Election Module

Gendered expectations of people of power: Talking about gender and the election in your Rosh Hodesh group.

The 2016 presidential campaign ignited many conversations related to gender. In this post, I will provide some ideas about how to facilitate a conversation with your Rosh Hodesh group about gendered expectations and stereotypes of leaders. The purpose of this session is not to debate about the candidates but to use the election as an opportunity to learn about and discuss issues of leadership and gender.

Objective:

  • Participants will think critically about gendered issues related to the recent presidential election.

Opening ritual:

Together, light the Rosh Hodesh candle and say the prayer.

Say:

Imagine what a leader looks like. Envision that leader in your head (optional: ask participants to call out the name of a leader they admire). If you’d like, write down a few characteristics of that leader.

Give the group a minute or two to think about what a leader looks like to them.

Ask:
  • Raise your hand if you envisioned a man (pause for hands). A woman?
  • What are other characteristics of the leader you just envisioned?

On large chart paper, write down the characteristics that are mentioned.

Say:    

If a male leader came to mind during this activity, you are not alone. The Harvard Graduate School of Education conducted a recent study in which researchers surveyed more than 19,000 students from a diverse range of 59 middle and high schools about the relationship between gender and student council leadership. Results showed that students were more likely to support boys than girls in student council leadership positions. Other findings suggested that teen girls particularly are biased against other teen girls in leadership positions (Harvard GSE, 2015).

Both the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump led many people to think more deeply about how a leader should look, speak, and behave.

Ask:
  • In what ways did the 2016 Presidential election — and its ultimate result, challenge or change your ideas about leadership?

In the first presidential debate, Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton did not have the “stamina” or “presidential look” to be president. What do you think “stamina” and the “presidential look” means in the context in which Trump used these terms? What did it mean when Hillary questioned whether Trump had the right temperment to be president? What do the words mean to you? How have the recent presidents and presidential races challenged what “presidential” looks and sounds like? (Think about gender, race, age, and “character.”)

In what ways has the election had an impact on your own thoughts about leadership in general? In what ways has it influenced you to think about your own leadership?

Pause for answers.

Wonder Woman

Share the following information about Bella Abzug with the group:

Bella Abzug grew up in the Bronx; her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. She obtained a law degree from Columbia University. At the time, Abzug was only one of a very small number of women law students in the country. She worked for 25 years in law, specializing in civil rights and liberties cases. When she was 50 years old, Abzug ran for Congress in Manhattan with a strong feminist and peace platform and became one of only 12 women in the House of Representatives. While in Congress, Abzug was known for her passion, charisma, hard work, and statement hats. However, she faced a lot of backlash from the press, who claimed she was too “irritating” and “brash” to be an effective leader. (Source: JWA)

Ask:
  • What stands out to you about Bella Abzug?
  • What do the words “irritating” and “brash” mean to you? How do you think they relate to “stamina”? How might they or might they not impact whether someone is able to be an effective leader? How might they reflect stereotypes and prejudice against Jewish women?
Say:

Now we are going to look at a text from Leviticus that describes how judges and litigants, people involved in a lawsuit, should behave. As we read the text together, imagine that instead of a courtroom, these rules are referring to procedures during a presidential campaign. The text is clearly trying to set the rules for a level playing field so that each litigant, or in our case, each candidate, gets equal treatment on the way to the verdict, or on the way toward the election.

Share the following verbatim or in your own words:

Rambam wrote the following in response to the verse in Leviticus 19:15: “With righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” What is meant by a righteous judgment? Treating the litigants equally with regard to all matters. One should not be allowed to speak to the full extent she feels necessary while the other is told to speak concisely. One should not treat one favorably and speak gently to her and treat the other harshly and speak sternly to her. (Rambam, Mishene Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:1)

Ask:
  • Do you think the presidential candidates were treated differently from one another by debate moderators, the media, voters, and others? If so, how?
  • In what ways do you think gender influenced how the candidates fared?
  • After the first presidential debate, many newscasters were talking about the number of times Donald Trump cut off or spoke over Hillary Clinton and/or the moderator.** In the case of a presidential debate, whose responsibility is it to make sure the candidates are “allowed to speak the full extent [they] feel necessary.”
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you were not given the appropriate amount of time to speak or that you were speaking too much? Describe the situation. (Share as a full group or with a partner). Was there a gendered component of the story?

**“The first presidential debate often resembled a schoolyard argument as the candidates interrupted and talked over one another, largely ignoring moderator Lester Holt’s attempts to impose order. Based on the transcript, which adds an ellipsis when someone is interrupted, TIME counted 84 times in which either Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Holt or the audience cut off the current speaker.

Trump was responsible for 55 of those 84 interruptions, while Clinton contributed 11.” (Source: TIME)

Donald Trump spent a lot of the complaining that the moderators were letting Hillary Clinton speak much more than him.

Well, the numbers are in, and it turns out Trump actually got to speak more than Clinton throughout the debate. Trump spoke for about 40 minutes and 10 seconds, while Clinton spoke for about 39 minutes and 5 seconds.

To some degree, Trump probably got to speak more because he spent part of the debate interrupting the moderators to complain about not speaking enough. Still, chances are speaking time would be roughly even if you accounted for that—showing that Trump really wasn’t getting the raw deal he claimed he was getting. (Source: Vox)

Now look together at the next part of Rambam’s response to Leviticus 19:15.

When there are two litigants, one wearing precious garments and the other degrading garments, we tell the litigant who carries himself honorably: “Either clothe him [the other litigant] as you are clothed for the duration of your judgment or dress like him, so that you will be equal” (Rambam, Mishene Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:2)

Ask:
  • Why do you think it is important or unimportant for the litigants/presidential candidates to dress in the same type of clothing?
  • Do you think dressing in the same type of clothing is enough to make people respond similarly to two presidential candidates?
  • How (if at all) does the way someone dresses influence how they are perceived? How have people responded to the way Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump have dressed or looked during this presidential campaign? What conscious choices do you think the candidates may have made regarding their clothing?**

**Hillary Clinton received criticism for wearing a shirt that showed a little bit of cleavage back in 2007 while campaigning for president the first time. The Washington Post referred to this as Clinton’s “Tentative Dip into New Neckline Territory.” She also used to experiment with fashion when she was First Lady of Arkansas (wearing dresses as well as power suits) and critics called her outfits “frumpy.” Nowadays, Clinton is almost always seen wearing a pantsuit. It’s almost a uniform. Her pantsuits are statement articles of clothing that say “please do not talk about my outfit.” Also worth noting: It wasn’t until 1993 that women were allowed to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor. (Source: The Atlantic)

Photos:

Hillary’s Pantsuits

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, one of first women to wear pants on the Senate floor

Ask:
  • How do you feel about the extra scrutiny placed on women politicians’ outfits?
  • Share a story of a time when you feel you received unfair or special treatment as a result of something you were wearing? (Share with the full group or with a partner.)
  • What kinds of decisions have you made about what to wear to interviews or special events and what factors did you think about?
  • How does the clothing of leaders in your synagogue, school, and other activities affect how you perceive them more generally?

The Double Bind

Share the following with the group in your own words. It describes the “double bind” that female politicians face: the expectation that they should be both kind and friendly and tough and decisive:

“The female gender role is based on the stereotype that women are nice and kind and compassionate,” says social psychologist Alice Eagly. By contrast, she says, “in a leadership role, one is expected to take charge and sometimes at least to demonstrate toughness, make tough decisions, be very assertive in bringing an organization forward, sometimes fire people for cause, etc.”

So, what’s a woman to do? Be nice and kind and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require? Or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be one is to be seen as nice, but weak. To be the other is to be seen as competent, but unlikable.

Connie Morella served for 16 years as a Republican congresswoman from Maryland…She says at times she struggled to be heard.

“In a committee room, when I wasn’t chair of the committee, I would respond to a question or comment on an issue, [and] they’d say, ‘Thank you, Connie, that was great.’ And a little later Congressman Smith would say the same thing, and it was, ‘Oh, Congressman Smith…that was fabulous, let the record show…’ and I’d think, ‘Gee, I just said that.'” (Source: Hidden Brain)

Ask:
  • How do you think you would feel if you were in a situation like the one Congresswoman Connie Morella describes?
  • In what ways do you think Hillary Clinton experienced the “double bind?”
  • In what ways (if at all) have you experienced a “double bind”—two conflicting messages about how you are supposed to behave, look, or be in your own life? What were those two messages? How did it make you feel? (Together or in pairs, have participants make a list of the conflicting messages they receive[d].)

Closing Ritual

Prayers for Election Day

Option 1: Read the following election day-related poem with your group.

 

How are you currently feeling after an election that hasn’t exactly brought peace?

Option 2: Write a letter or record a video to send to Trump expressing your hopes for his presidency.

Option 3:  Prompt participants to write their own short prayer or reflection for their community in this moment of Presidential transition. After participants have written their prayers/reflections, provide time for them to share with the group.

Additional Sources:

ADL– Bias in the Presidential Election

The New York Times – Speaking While Female, and at a Disadvantage

The New York Times – The Problem for Women is not Winning, It’s Deciding to Run

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