The gender card

Once again, we see that there are no boundaries when it comes to making outrageously sexist remarks with impunity. The latest example can be found in a nationally televised interview involving former Republican Congressman Dick Armey.

But first, some perspective. Remember the primary campaign? 'How do we beat the bitch?' was the question asked of Senator McCain, when Hillary Clinton seemed to be the Democratic front-runner. His response did not even hint at the notion that the question itself was inappropriate.

And, of course, now we are subjected to ongoing commentary about Katie Couric's new hairstyle and speculation about Nancy Pelosi's plastic surgery. All fair game, we are told, because they are public figures. It's just that we don't seem to read all that much about which male politicians touch up their hair and tighten their eyes, nor do we read about what President Obama wears compared to, say, the First Lady. Yet, if women raise concerns about the unfairness of such superficial coverage of leading female figures, we are admonished to stop playing the 'gender card.'

But recently, Dick Armey brought sexist discourse to a new level, even for Washington. The former Congressman set about belittling Joan Walsh, Editor-in Chief of Salon.Com, on national television. The interview, which took place on Chris Matthew's Hardball, should become mandatory viewing for anyone interested in studying how women are treated in the media.

The topic of the segment wandered between the benefits of tax cuts as part of a stimulus package and Rush Limbaugh's latest bombastic remarks about Barack Obama. The result was television at its most painful. And it was business as usual as far as the media is concerned.

Watch Dick belittle Joan whenever she tried to get a word in edgewise. See Dick smirk at her every word. Hear Dick say, 'Give it a rest' multiple times, as though that is a legitimate response to Joan's efforts to talk about the economic issues facing our country. And then gasp as Dick delivers the ultimate zinger: 'I'm so damn glad you can never be my wife because I surely wouldn't have to listen to that prattle from you every day.' He continued on, barely pausing to catch a breath, even as we held ours. Watch Chris Matthews do nothing.

Now try to find some major media figure - anyone - who called this out as an example of sexist treatment. You may be searching for a while. Howard Kurtz offered a pointed mention on Reliable Sources. Beyond that, the airwaves have not exactly been filled with journalists expressing outrage at this patently offensive behavior.

Nor is it fair to dismiss the crude comments as simply the hyperbole of a former politician. Mr. Armey was, in fact, a recent leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives (you know, the same one who once referred to Congressman Barney Frank as 'Barney Fag').

Dick Armey now works at one of the largest law firms in the world. It is a good guess that women lawyers work at that firm as well. Do they get the same belittling treatment? Are they even on his radar screen as people who can contribute in meaningful ways to the work at the firm? Or does he have a policy where, if women attorneys speak up or otherwise assert an opinion different from his, they are relegated to the fictitious Wives' Club, where imaginary women's voices are heard prattling in the distance?

It is time to stop the silence which greets words that cause damage. Women must be able to move past the stage of being the 'good sport,' sitting quietly with fake smiles, holding back direct responses to words that are meant to demean.

This is not about playing a gender card, for that presupposes there is a game involved. This is not a game. This is about understanding the use of language - words and body language alike - as a tool which can be used to hold people back. It is also about holding people accountable for the content and tone of their discourse.

And please do not bother sending forth admonitions to 'lighten up.' Even women with terrific senses of humor have a right to be angry. If no one else is willing to name the behavior, women must then be the ones to step forward and do so.

We owe it to ourselves and each other to challenge words and behaviors that are used to diminish others. Hopefully, Congressman Armey's wife explained this to him when he got home from the interview.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Esq., is the executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women's Success, a partner at Bowditch & Dewey, LLP, and the author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law.