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Progress in Politics Forum

October 30, 2007

I’m sitting in the Butler Board Room at AU waiting for the “Progress in Politics Forum” to begin. The forum is sponsored by Women’s Initiative and Students for Hillary and will feature 3 AU professor panelists: Sarah Brewer, Allan Lichtman, and Barbara Palmer. According to the AU Student Government Web site, the forum “will examine and discuss the past, present and future of women in American politics from a historical, political and feminist perspective.”
These issues are important to expanding the diversity of political debate in America today. The increasing influence of women on the political process has the opportunity to transform political dialogue. This is especially relevant in light of Nancy Pelosi’s recent election to Speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton’s bid for the oval office in 2008.

The panel is beginning without Allen Lichtman, who failed to show up.
Director of Women & Politics Institute Karen O’Connor is moderating the discussion.

While the panel covered a broad range of topics from the first congresswoman (Jeanette Rankin, first elected in 1916) to the term of former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, I’d like to focus mainly on the panel’s discussion of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and the challenges facing women running for national office today.

Palmer discussed whether we, as a country, have gotten past referring to Pelosi as “Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the house,” and now think of her only as “Speaker Pelosi.” Palmer said when a journalist recently asked her this question, she was inclined to say yes, we have gotten past it, but then she recalled an instance this past summer when the media had a ball covering Clinton’s cleavage. Often, the media will cover female politicians’ clothes and families far more than they will for male politicians.

I find this appalling, and really, really annoying. Focusing on personal matters and fashion choices obscures the real issues at hand. Though Brewer said in the panel that Clinton does not get as much of this because she has been on the national political stage for so long. However, women’s professional dress is a lot less standard than men’s (I guess a blue suit and red tie wouldn’t fly with Hillary. I know it wouldn’t with me!), so we have a lot more room to be creative. Of course, this can create a distinctive look that some wayward journalist might actually think is newsworthy

Back on Pelosi, Brewer said that it is her duality of female stereotypes that contributed to her success.
“She’s not the iron lady, but she’s not just the grandma that everybody likes,” Brewer said, citing Pelosi’s traditionally masculine approach to leadership.
“Don’t get me wrong, the fact that she’s a grandmother of five is the reason she can get away with this…. shes a great transitional person in my mind,” Brewer added.

After the panel, I asked Brewer and Palmer whether they thought a single, childless woman could succeed in politics without appearing too masculine. To me, it seems to be a lose-lose situation set up by gender scripts. Either you are weak and nurturing, unable to stand up in a political battle, or too hard and career driven, with no family values. In that case, you probably must be a lesbian too.
Brewer and Palmer cited two examples of young, childless women who have put their political careers first and are meeting with early success: Congresswoman Hilda Soliz of California, and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota.
However, whether these women or others like them will be able to overcome these hurdles in campaigning for higher offices remains to be seen.

Finally, one interesting point the specifically applies to the topic of presidential debate is how a female candidate can appear strong and tell the American people what they want to hear. Many people seem to have doubts about how a woman would behave in the role of commander in chief. Palmer discussed a question asked at one of the earlier democratic primary debates. The moderator asked what each candidate would do if terrorists carried out 9/11 style attacks on major U.S. cities during their term. Obama and Edwards both said they would investigate who really committed the attacks before responding and would discuss options with foreign allies. Bush, Palmer added, would probably have said the same thing if he had been asked. However, Palmer said Hillary responded that she would bomb them off the face of the planet.
“I don’t know if thats what she’d really do, but that was the answer that people wanted, and she got it right,” Palmer said.

Does being a woman mean you have to give up what you may really believe in order to appear stronger, less “womanly?” Do women have to give up more to run a successful campaign than men?

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