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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."

Is politics really harder on women, or could we expect to see just as much browbeating with a "controversial" male candidate? Could a more perfect female candidate--and not "perfect" in terms of looks or age or even ideology--succeed at this men's game? It's hard to say. But as Sanchez asks, "What are the qualities the next female candidate for president or vice president will need to embody in order either to reflect most broadly the common life experience of women--or to transcend it in a way that is acceptable or appealing to the majority of women?"

What is clear is that running for public office, even serving as First Lady, places onerous demands on women. Campaigns for women are a complicated equation in which they are constantly forced to balance new variables. The debate over a woman's proper role in society has never been more conspicuous than in politics. Clinton and Palin were both forced to refashion themselves in ways that would please multiple demographics. Some women identified with Sarah Palin because she seemed like one of them: a small-town girl, wife, and mother. Others vilified her because she is a pro-life, practicing Christian who supports gun rights. Older women identified with Hillary Clinton, but by focusing her campaign so heavily on experience, she failed to forge a connection with younger women. And while Michelle Obama did not run for public office, she shares a similar challenge of seeking to appeal to all women everywhere.

It's hard not to agree with Sanchez that a not-so-subtle layer of sexism tainted the 2008 presidential campaign. And it's equally notable that, while women are influencers in politics--consider the list of recent White House press secretaries, including Dee Dee Myers and Dana Perino--relatively few women are actually decision makers. Are we too quick to assume that a deficit of women in public office means that sexism is still to blame? Are we overlooking an important symbol of success? Perhaps the fact that women do not make up the majority of our political leaders--as Sanchez indicates they do in some other places--ought to be seen not as a failure but an achievement. The fact is that women have so many other lucrative professional opportunities--even in once male-dominated areas--that many women may be choosing not to enter a world in which they become a media spectacle. Perhaps there is something fundamental about politics that makes it less appealing to women than other professions.

This is not to say that women are not aggressive, or cannot compete in the political arena; it is simply a reminder, as if we need one, that men and women are different. Either way, the kind of abuse Clinton and Palin endured is inexcusable and should make men and women--Republicans and Democrats--squirm with discomfort. And the fact that so many other good options exist for women in America means that, when a candidate's personal life generates more attention than her policy prescriptions, we're going to see fewer women running for public office.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer, managing partner of Evolving Strategies, is a visiting fellow with the Independent Women's Forum.