From Beecher to DeVos and all the Benevolent Sexism In-Between

By the time I finally hit publish on this piece, it’s likely that Betsy DeVos will have been confirmed as our 11th Secretary of Education. Which… grrr. Argh. Grumble. There are lots of reasons people don’t want her confirmed and each group has their own reasons. I was one of the many folks livestreaming her confirmation hearing and learned that a number of reporters, authors, and celebrities that I follow have a child with a disability and are *deeply* invested in public education which speaks to the broad interest in her. Dana Goldstein’s piece in the NYTimes does a solid job walking through the various forms of the pushback.

Late last week, Anya Kamenetz a writer for NPR, wrote a piece about DeVos and the response. Included at the end of her piece was a few paragraphs about gender. She included quotes from two men with different reads and framed it around a question: Is gender at play?

I peeped Kamenetz’s mentions to see how people responded to the piece and sweet chickens, the evidence seems to suggest that educators really do not like talking about gender, even as a theoretical talking point. There are even mentions of the “gender card”, suggesting that Kamenetz was defending DeVos. Which is not only odd but contrasts pretty sharply with the rest of her piece. The number of responses to her that suggested women can’t be sexist was an extra interesting thing we’re eventually going to have to circle back around to in education…

However. The question of gender presents an interesting challenge from an argument perspective. There’s a couple of ways we could frame a claim statement about it:

The vocal pushback to DeVos is based in sexism because people don’t think a woman can do the job.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? We’ve had two female Ed Secs, including the first one.
  • Evidence that supports that claim? Education is a female-dominated profession but women are underrepresented in leadership positions.

Sexism is evident around her nomination because during her confirmation hearing, questioners referenced her husband.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? DeVos has spoken at length about her involvement in the schools her husband started. A supporter referenced  her husband and those schools.
  • Evidence that supports that claim? The second reference, from a dissenter, cited a quote her husband made and asked if she agreed.

The vocal pushback to DeVos is sexist in nature because we seem to be okay with men with no experience taking cabinet positions but not women.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? This is a tough one. On one hand, Domina’s quote in the NPR piece gets at this. We may have collectively balked at DeVos because of our discomfort with women stepping outside a particular role and that discomfort allowed her nomination to register in a way that Carson’s didn’t. On the other hand, education is front and center for nearly every American – parent or not – through school taxes, sports teams, and daily life. HUD isn’t something most are aware of or can understand in any meaningful way. As a result, we’re more comfortable with calling out an unqualified female candidate than we are calling out an unqualified male one. If she isn’t confirmed, there will likely be a veneer of sexism to her downfall – we were all so enraptured by the unqualified woman, we didn’t speak up about the men who are more likely to do real and actual damage.

Some of the pushback to DeVos has been sexist in nature because it focused on her appearance, her smile, or her affect.

  • Evidence to challenge? We’re living in Trump’s world now so it’s okay to talk about what she looks like because that’s clearly how he judges women.
  • Evidence to support: Yeah… what I just wrote is BS. Don’t talk about a woman’s smile, voice, appearance, or affect when critiquing her. Unless your critiquing her ability to act, model, or dance.

So, while on an academic level, I’m happy to poke at the different ways institutional sexism manifests itself, I want to throw out a big ol’ claim out into the void. Her very nomination and subsequent support is an explicit example of benevolent sexism.

beecher_008In the mid-1800’s, when the common school structure was starting to come together, a woman named Catherine Beecher spoke about “missionary teachers.” She saw teaching as something akin to preaching; by saving the neglected American children, young White women would be saving the country itself. She lived, breathed, and proselytized this philosophy with such vehemence it became entrenched within the DNA of the profession. Feel that teaching is a calling? That’s Beecher’s legacy. The message itself isn’t bad unto itself – teaching is hard work, usually at low pay, and finding a reason to join a derided profession can be a good thing.

The problem is when that message gets tied up in gender (and race). Beecher openly bashed male teachers and told horror stories of what would happen if parents entrusted their children to Ichabod Crane type caricatures. Women, you see, were born to teach. Teaching was what women were meant to do (until they got married and became mothers, of course.) To this day, male Kindergarten teachers speak about the response they often get from the public. That? That’s sexism. The idea that a particular gender better equips candidates for a particular job, and a different gender means someone is less qualified for that same job.

I was frustrated by DeVos from day one so drawing a bright line from her to Beecher is crystal clear to me. From where I sit, DeVos is the 2017 version of the White Savior Teacher that Beecher envisioned and that is exactly why Trump nominated her. She fits the part.

We all know Trump is explicitly sexist. Any man who would joke that he’d date his daughter if she weren’t his daughter doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. (Having Conway on his team or kids who love him doesn’t negate any of that.) We also know he makes decisions based on how he thinks it’ll play in the media. If you wanted to cast the head of education, who better fits that role than a well-intentioned, middle-aged White woman who cares deeply about America’s “forgotten students?” His benevolent sexism lies in putting forth a nominee he can only describe as an “advocate.”

I’ve no doubt DeVos is an intelligent woman who feels she understands education and wants to do good. It’s that wanting to do good that is exactly the problem with her being the Secretary of Education. Public education is messy – it’s built on a racist, sexist foundation and consistently inhibits the best and the worst of America. Yeah! An all-female high school science team design a project that’s going to the space station. Boo! Detroit schools are literally falling apart. A team full of wanting-to-do-gooders isn’t going to fix that. *Wanting* isn’t enough. In other words, she has consistently embodied the wanting without the doing. She mentored but has seemingly never worked as a sub. She pursued a degree in business and political science but there’s no evidence she’s even taken a single class in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, or heck, even ed history. She has to borrow other people’s words to describe her vision for ed. She wants to change a system she doesn’t want to be a part of. It suggests she will see every aspect of education as a problem that only she can fix as those in the system just don’t see what she sees. That’s deeply problematic.

There is an argument to be made that, for her, “doing” lies in how she donates and spends money. That’s a different argument that is wrapped up in class and I’ll defer to others to make that point.

Which leads us to the benevolent sexism around supporting her nomination. Just after the election, I was venting my frustration about Trump to a conservative educator. I cited Trump’s infamous bus quote and prefaced it with “my president said…” He basically shrugged and said, “my president supports school choice.” This was before DeVos’ name came out and I suspect he’s a supporter of her nomination because she supports this vague concept called “school choice.” That by itself, isn’t necessary sexist. That’s Machiavellian – the ends justify the means. As is liking her because unions don’t or because you trust Trump’s choices… that’s not sexist but it is something worth doing some navel-gazing about. Joe Lieberman throwing in the line “she’s a mother, a grandmother” when listing why she’s qualified for the job is. The repeated stress on How. Much. She. Cares. is. Suggesting she’ll be good at the job because she understands, empathizes, gets, wants to save children? That’s benevolent sexism.

To be clear, using these arguments doesn’t make you sexist. But. If you’re relying on the depth of her ability to care as your driving argument behind her skillset to do the job, you’re shoring up the same argument Beecher used to persuade young women to travel across a country. Teaching is hella hard work and teachers (male and female) who are good at their job are well-trained, well-resourced, and highly reflective.They’re not good teachers because they care.

In truth, DeVos will likely have little impact. Most things that impact day to day practices happen at the state or local level. I read through her responses to Murrary’s questions and I found them to be thoughtful, vague, and generic. Heck. I even agreed with some of them. Odds are she’ll be fine. However, she can, though, have a major impact on LGBTQ students. On students with disabilities. On future teacher sources and professional development funds. On Title 1 fund dispersement. On a whole bunch of things. Perhaps I’m wrong and she hasn’t been confirmed yet or that third Republican saw the light and voted no. If that happens, Trump can always give me a call.

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