The Magazine

Political Women

The complications of gender in today's America.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By SABRINA L. SCHAEFFER
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You've Come a Long Way, Maybe

Sarah, Michelle, Hillary, and the Shaping of the

New American Woman

by Leslie Sanchez

Palgrave Macmillan,

224 pp., $25

The hit television program Mad Men provides a remarkable (if exaggerated) portrayal of the sexism that once dominated the workplace, and defined much of mainstream society. The show is centered around an advertising agency in Manhattan in the early 1960s, where women--I mean, girls--work as secretaries until they find husbands, are left out of any meaningful conversation, and are treated largely as sexual objects.

Mad Men, of course, uses TV license; but there's no doubt that women have made tremendous strides, from business to medicine to media, shattered glass ceilings, and achieved levels of success no one working at Sterling Cooper--except, perhaps, Peggy Olson--would have imagined. Yet in politics, women have not quite found their footing. We have women representatives, senators, governors, and two women who figured prominently in the 2008 presidential race. But on balance, women are significantly underrepresented in American politics.

Or, at least, that's what Leslie Sanchez maintains in You've Come A Long Way, Maybe--a catchy title commending the accomplishments of women leaders while recognizing the challenges that still confront women interested "in the arena." A communications consultant and political strategist, Sanchez herself has experienced no shortage of professional success; but her careful analyses of Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama remind readers that, while women have come a long way since the dawn of the modern feminist movement, women -seeking public office share a daunting task.

As was made evident through the extensive dissections of Clinton's run for the presidential nomination, and Palin's push for the vice presidency, women candidates endure a level of hostility that would make most women (and men) run hard and fast back to the board room, operating room, or classroom. It was nasty, it was personal, and both Clinton and Palin suffered because of it. Some might say "that's politics" but Sanchez says maybe. It looks a lot like sexism, too, and deciding where to draw the line, she acknowledges, is the challenge. "Let's be clear," she writes, "sexism wasn't the overriding reason [Clinton] lost. Give credit where credit is due. Her opponent was better by nearly every measure." Yet it's hard to overlook the ruthless personal attacks that often came from friendly media outlets.

Discussion about Clinton's sex life and marriage, for example, was fair game. And one TV talking head seemed to outdo the next. One of the most uncomfortable moments Sanchez relays is an interview Keith Olbermann of MSNBC conducted with Newsweek's Howard Fineman about ways to encourage Clinton to drop out of the race. Fineman said that it was going to take "some adults somewhere in the Democratic party to step in [and] stop this thing," to which Olbermann replied, "Right. Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out."

As Sanchez notes, can anyone imagine the response if that same comment had been made about "taking" Barack Obama into a back room? For all the egregious attacks Clinton endured, however, Sarah Palin suffered a more brutal beating. What started as discussions about her good looks devolved quickly--and at times uncomfortably--into running commentary on her clothing, intelligence, marital status, and career/home balancing act. And as Sanchez explains, it wasn't only Palin's critics doing the talking: Many conservative men seemed to be gaga for Palin, and a comment about her appearance prefaced too many statements about her. Sanchez doesn't whitewash Palin's limitations, or those of the McCain campaign. Palin's "fall was her own campaign's doing," she says, but "it was aided and abetted by an undercurrent of sexism that just wouldn't go away."

What Sanchez sees as most egregious about the treatment of Clinton and Palin is the extent to which other women contributed to (or were complicit in) personal attacks. "Clinton and Palin were running for the two highest offices in the land," she writes, "but, somehow, their candidacies turned us into mean girls." Women created Facebook groups such as "Women Against Sarah Palin," "Intelligent Women Against Sarah Palin," and "Stop Hillary Clinton: One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary."