Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Ladies, Take a Stand

Written by Marguerite Nowak

It’s an exciting and electric time in politics—especially for women. For the first time in history, we have a female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; had a serious female contender for the presidency, Hillary Clinton; and only the second female vice presidential candidate representing a major American political party, Sarah Palin (Geraldine Ferraro being the first when she ran with Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984). Yet I can’t help but notice a curious trend…

It’s an exciting and electric time in politics—especially for women. For the first time in history, we have a female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; had a serious female contender for the presidency, Hillary Clinton; and only the second female vice presidential candidate representing a major American political party, Sarah Palin (Geraldine Ferraro being the first when she ran with Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984). Yet I can’t help but notice a curious trend…

Currently, I live in Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco, and I can attest to the fact that when she was running for office, the feeling here was exhilarating. Not only because having a woman rise to the position third in line from the Presidency is huge, (making her the highest-ranking woman in politics throughout US history), but also because Pelosi is smart, progressive, fiery, passionate, and experienced (she has served in the House since 1987). This was all thrilling for many. Yet, she campaigned as an Italian, Catholic grandmother who loves her kids and wanted to make sure you got enough to eat. For some reason, this bothered me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.

Next, Michelle Obama came on the scene; she is incredibly smart, hard-working, well-educated, a lawyer, and active in her community. At first, the American people weren’t warming up to her. Then, a couple of months ago, I was in an airport and I saw her gracing the covers of Ladies Home Journal, US Weekly, and Good Housekeeping, as excerpts from her appearance on The View aired on the overhead TVs. Gone were the power suits, in were the sundresses; and there was no talk about her career either. Even in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, she painted herself as a sister, mother, and wife. While those are critical roles that should certainly be honored, I couldn’t help but wonder why there was practically no mention of her career as a lawyer or hospital administrator, or even of her experiences working in her community.

Subsequently, Governor Sarah Palin entered into the political arena, and although I disagree with many of her policies and views, I was amazed that her official Republican Party bio video started off with “Mother, Moose hunter, Maverick,” and only later mentioned that she was a former mayor and the first female governor of Alaska. Her campaign was centered around her being a hockey mom, fiercely loyal to her family and children.

While I respect and support the choices (and sacrifices) women make for their families, I find it puzzling that women running for office market themselves in such traditional roles. Whether it is as a grandmother, sister, or mom, these women are not campaigning on their careers, professional experiences, or other related and important credentials as heavily as they are on their roles as mothers. We will never hear a male politician say he would make a great president because he’s a fantastic dad or protective older brother. I can only imagine how much the media would poke fun at a man if his wife were running for a high-level position and he was a supportive, stay-at-home father.

Looking back at excerpts from Michelle Obama’s debut on The View, she talked about her interactions with Laura Bush, and commented about her frankly, "There's a reason why people like her, because she doesn't, sort of, fuel the fire.” As the interview progressed, Obama touched on Hillary Clinton and sexism in the media, stating, “People aren't used to strong women. There are times we don't even know how to talk about them.”

Michelle Obama spoke of a truth many of us surely wish wasn’t a reality—that society is warm to women who are softer and less threatening—but isn’t it a reality? The media seemed pretty hard on Hillary until the day she teared up while giving a speech. Are female politicians painting themselves in traditional roles so they seem less threatening? Why would American voters be scared of smart, independent, and accomplished women? Do our citizens like it when a woman in a position to make change doesn’t ruffle feathers, or “fuel the fire"? Why are male candidates campaigning as strong forces of change and great communicators, and not as fantastic dads or devoted husbands?

So what can we do? I'm not sure we can suddenly make society unafraid of smart, powerful women. But I think we, as women and men, can start talking about all the qualifications women who are running for office have. Not only can we speak of these women as hip grannies, Armani grannies (both monikers for Pelosi), or supermoms juggling both kids and career, but we can also emphasize their credentials—that they have been active in national politics for twenty years, or that they were at the top of their class because they are innovative and intelligent.

Furthermore, these women are just as capable (as men are) of leading, making critical decisions, and being forceful, and they shouldn’t be feared or put down because of it; they should be honored and admired. We can also demand fair treatment of women in the media by supporting women and all of the personal choices they make, whether it is to raise a family, pursue a career, or do both at the same time. Let’s honor and support intelligent, powerful, and trailblazing women by highlighting these differences in standards and media portrayals. Pointing out the inconsistencies can help raise awareness and ignite the debate—and sometimes that’s all society needs to get started.

 Illustration by J. Longo

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