Just days after writing about some inspirational women in environmental politics, I read about the current law case being brought against the city of New York by a group of residents opposed to a bicycle lane in a wealthy area of Brooklyn. The case raises objections to the creation of a segregated two way cycle lane in the area in 2010, and claims that the city mislead residents about the benefits of the lane and safety statistics, while working with bicycle activists to silence local opposition. That the path reduces resident parking, restricts views of the park and could adversely affect property prices I imagine is on people's minds, if not their court documents.
But what struck me about the subsequent reporting was not the environmental issue, or even the social aspect (the practice of taking road space from motorists to give to cyclists and pedestrians has been labelled a 'Robin Hood' practice), no, what is noticeable is the particular focus on Janette Sadik Khan, NYC Transport Commissioner, and the women responsible for the recent cycling initiatives in New York that have previously been lauded for improving cyclist and pedestrian safety, time efficiency and adding to the general worker mobility of money areas such as Wall Street.
As others have highlighted, the action against the city has started to take a very personal tone. While the case in question calls for the removal of a single cycle lane, reporters and opposition groups have been quick to jump on the idea that this is a long over due backlash against Khan. Reporting, in particular from the New York Times, has focussed on her personality and management style, speculating about her 'brusque, I-know-best style and a reluctance to compromise' as well her aggressive attitude. One wonders if these aspects of character would have been so freely commented upon if Khan had been a man, and even then, would that have been seen as entirely negative. And that's before we even get to the undignified comments of gossip columnist Cindy Adams which refer to Khan as a 'wacko nutso'.
But this is hardly the first time that a women in high public office has seen objections about her politics turn personal, and in some cases overtly sexist in tone. Sarah Palin faced high levels of criticism during the 2008 election, much of it turned personal (yeah, that's politics for you, regardless of gender, I'm not that naive), but some of it turned sexist and sexual. Huffington Post contributor and screen writer Michael Steitzman in his insightful 'Sarah Palin Naked' article stated 'She's really is kinda hot. Basically, I want to have sex with her on my Barack Obama sheets while my wife reads aloud from the Constitution.' C'mon people, Palin's politics alone should be enough to ridicule her, there's no need for that, or the photoshopped bikini pictures, or the Palin porno for that matter.
At the moment Khan's critics have focussed on attitude rather than sexuality, yet the fact that the argument has shifted away from the issue and onto the public servant either speaks volumes for the weight of the original argument or reveals more about the growing resentment towards Khan. Is it personal? It is certainly starting to look that way. Is it gender related? Perhaps not across the board, but some inherent attitudes seem incapable of distinguishing between the woman and the job she holds.
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