Although Bernie Sanders would have it otherwise, the final round of presidential campaign, Trump v. Clinton, appears to be underway. Mr. Trump’s opening broadside was (no surprise here) a personal attack on Ms. Clinton, in which Trump opined that if Hillary Clinton were not a woman, she would be at “5% in the polls.” Secretary Clinton, Trump charged, is playing the “woman card” to get ahead in the campaign.
In response, Secretary Clinton said that if fighting for equal rights for women is playing the woman card, then “deal me in.”
“Woman card” is a euphemism, and it is incumbent upon us political observers to unpack euphemisms. What does it mean?
Woman card is a derivative of the more often-used term race card, and so to understand the one we have to look at the other. Race card is a derogatory term applied to people who are perceived as using the accusation of racism to advance a political idea or cause. In its original, standard usage, if a political candidate appears to be calling his opponent a racist, he is using the race card.
Recently, the term has often been expanded into a second, broader meaning, and can to refer to anyone who complains about racism or racial oppression in the political arena. When used in this sense, the implication is that anyone who brings up racism in politics is doing so to advance his or her own interests. That is, when someone is playing the race card, he or she is using the accusation racist as a weapon to bash opponents. The word racism becomes nothing more than a form of character assassination.
I would agree that calling your opponent a racist in a political contest is non-productive and should be avoided. It is demeaning, and very hard to prove or disprove. It does nothing to improve debate, and often has the opposite effect of shutting down the conversation. No one thinks of himself as a racist, not even real racists. More importantly, there are only a few people who qualify as pure racists — the majority of people who could have that label applied to them have a combination of views that cannot easily be reduced to plain hatred. To call these individuals racists is to inflame them when calm conversion is what is needed. For example, the civil rights conflict in the 1960s was decided not only by the brave protesters, but also by the millions in the middle of the road who chose to reject segregation, even if they could not reject prejudice in its entirety.
In this narrow sense of the term, the phrase race card has some validity. It is not a good idea in most situations to accuse opponents of racism. To do so hurts rather than helps the cause of racial equality. It is probably helpful in some contexts to point out that a person who indiscriminately accuses others of racism, thus playing the race card, is making a tactical, if not a moral, error.
But that is not the way the phrase race card is often used. Instead, it is frequently hijacked by people who want agitators against racism to shut up and go home. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, are sometimes accused of playing the race card. In this context, they are not being accused of calling individuals racist (the first sense of playing the race card) — they are being accused of bringing up race as an issue in the first place, something it seems polite company would prefer that people no longer be allowed to do.
This is an inversion of political correctness, perpetrated by the very people who claim to despise it. Shouldn’t honest political discourse include grievances? An African-American has as much right to complain about perceived prejudice as anyone else. Black Lives Matter is not necessarily accusing any individual of racism. It is demanding better treatment of black people by police, and this is something African-Americans have a right to ask for.
Back to “woman card.” When Trump complained that Clinton was playing the “woman card,” he was implying that Clinton is using her womanhood to political advantage. He was not accusing her of calling him a misogynist (which, to my knowledge, so far she has not); he was accusing her of benefitting politically from being female. That is to say, he wasn't using the woman card idea in the first sense, but instead in a broader, "sit down and shut up" sense.
And my complaint here is the same objection I have people who use the term race card in the broader sense. Which is: So what? Doesn’t a woman have the right to complain about perceived injustice? Isn’t complaining about injustice what politics is all about? Hillary Clinton is a woman. It is not unfair for her to use that reality to inform and even advance her politics. Just as a 7 foot, 2 inch center has a right to use his height advantage on a basketball court, a woman has a right to incorporate her gender into her politics, and even take advantage of it if she wants to. We aren’t all eunuchs here. We are individuals, men and women, and our opinions have to come from someplace. Ovaries are just as good as testicles for that purpose. And anyone who thinks testicles have never been a source of political opinions needs a good shot of steroids and a very long stretch in a history classroom.
But just as race politics has limits, gender politics has limits, too. The limit is that no woman has a right to say an opponent is an inferior candidate just because he is male. But since no female candidate has ever done that, this charge is null. On the other hand, a woman certainly has a right to argue that her experience as a mother, or her experience of succeeding in male-dominated fields, is relevant to politics. An Army Ranger would claim military experience as a qualification. A teacher would claim classroom experience as an advantage, and a doctor would claim medical experience as well.
I have no objection to a female candidate using her gender as part of a campaign. Sarah Palin’s entire political career has been based on this, and no one ever accused her of playing the “woman card.” Because Palin didn’t. She used a female perspective to bring interest to conservatism. For all the odd things Sarah Palin has done, I don’t ever recall her calling a male opponent sexist, or claiming womanhood made her superior to a male.
No woman has ever played the woman card in this sense. This is the sense in which Donald Trump used it, and this is why his charge is vacuous.