Kitty Genovese and Sarah Palin: The “Bystander Effect” and Women of the Democratic Party

October 16, 2008 by

Witnessing the horrific treatment of Senator Clinton during the 2008 Presidential Primary, many women of this country joined forces and said: “Never again!”

The sexist treatment of Senator Clinton has been credited by some for the reawakening of feminism in our country. Amanda Fortini wrote an article for the New York Magazine in April 2008 titled: “The Feminist Reawakening: Hillary Clinton and the Fourth Wave”; Lisa Wangsness wrote an article for The Boston Globe in August 2008 titled: “Clinton’s Journey Awakens a New Women’s Movement”; and Froma Harrop wrote about Senator Clinton’s supporters moving on to work on sexism in a syndicated article titled: “It’s No Longer Just About Hillary”.

When Senator McCain picked Governor Palin to be his Vice President, responses varied: Women were overjoyed; women were dismayed. Many were surprised—but some were not. Some figured that in his VP selection, Senator Obama had overlooked the candidate who had received 18 million votes in the primary. This left the field wide open for a gutsy move by Senator McCain. Many Hillary Clinton supporters (including The New Agenda) had lobbied Senator McCain to pick a woman.

But whatever the opinion of Governor Palin, some of us vowed that we would not let the sexism that was directed at Hillary creep into the political landscape again. Women’s groups like Women Count, The New Agenda and Women’s Media Center spoke out about the early attacks on Governor Palin. Within 48 hours of the announcement of Governor Palin’s selection, The New Agenda issued a press release denouncing the use of the term “MILF” and some other early statements. Those early comments were offensive, but they hardly compare to today’s vitriol.

There are two differences between the attacks on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. First, the attacks on Governor Palin have intensified, becoming more graphic, disturbing and violent with time. Second, this time women are part of the attack machine—to be specific: women of the Democratic Party are actually attacking Governor Palin in a sexist, personal and/or demeaning way. Many others are standing by and either cheering on those spewing the vitriol, or remaining silent—not speaking out against it.

Which brings us back to Psychology 101 and the “Bystander Effect” or “Genovese Syndrome.” The notion behind this is that an individual will intervene to help a person in need when they are alone; however, when a large group is involved, bystanders may refuse to help.

One infamous example is the case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. The killing took place over the course of half an hour: the murderer initially fled the scene, scared off by a neighbor, but returned ten minutes later after realizing that no bystanders had interceded on Genovese’s behalf. Exaggerated newspaper reporting following Genovese’s death claimed 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene.

Are the women of the Democratic Party the new bystanders?

What started as “MILF” has taken a slippery slope right into a cesspool. The next noxious installment was a Huffington Post story titled “Sarah Palin Naked”, in which the author writes: “Basically, I want to have sex with her on my Barack Obama sheets while my wife reads aloud from the Constitution. (My wife is cool with this if I promise to ‘first wipe off Palin’s tranny makeup.’ I married well)”. The article itself is repulsive; but the comments posted on the article were mostly men and women cheering this notion on—and none in the Democratic Party spoke out to condemn this careful and deliberate fantasy of Palin’s degradation.

Unchecked, the misogyny feast has intensified. Over this past weekend, Senator Obama’s supporters proudly wore shirts printed in giant neon green letters that said, “Sarah Palin is a Cunt”. One female supporter was so proud of this t-shirt that she posted a picture of it on Senator Obama’s website (it was quickly taken down, however). Not to be outdone, the Huffington Post ran a story on Monday titled: “’Nailin’ Paylin’ Photos: Pictures from the Set of The Palin Inspired Porn”. Did the Democratic women who frequent this website speak out about HuffPo’s promotion of this revolting attack? No.

As if the porn weren’t insult enough, yesterday a 25 year-old rapper posted a Youtube video (now removed from YouTube, but still available here) in which he raps about raping Sarah Pali, Barbara Bush, and Tipper Gore, amongst others. The reaction this time: deafening silence. As Dr. Lynette Long comments: “It saddens me that not only are women not outraged by this video but participate in this. Again I feel frustrated by the silence that envelopes the women’s groups that are supposed to protect all women not just Democratic women.”

Women of the Democratic Party, beware. Will you sit at the sidelines because she doesn’t agree with you on policy? Will you excuse your silence because Governor Palin does not share your political beliefs? What are you teaching your daughters? What are you teaching your granddaughters? Are you telling them that it’s okay for a woman to be vilified? That it’s okay for a woman to be degraded, belittled and raped in prose? And you will cheer this on, because she’s not your candidate, or sit on the sidelines, because of some notion of solidarity? Will you let the murderer return to the scene again and again before you finally call the police and end the attack?

“The attack lasted more than half an hour. After it was over, someone called the police, who arrived within two minutes.”

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