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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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.