Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 1999/ 20 Kislev, 5760
Except for Elizabeth Dole's brief run for the Republican presidential
nomination, a politician's sex no longer attracts much attention. The
giddiness of "the Year of the Woman" has given way to a situation in which
female candidates are as normal as male ones, though not yet as numerous.
For their womanhood to make headlines, women pols have to do something truly
unusual -- for instance, capture the five top statewide offices, as they did
in Arizona a year ago.
Such normalcy is the best news women could have. Nevertheless, there are
those who continue to seek out the bad news. A few weeks ago, the Women's
Leadership Fund released a study titled "Framing Gender on the Campaign
Trail," which examined media coverage of male and female candidates for
office and concluded that women are the victims of a double standard, with
the press paying more attention to their clothes and personal traits than to
their qualifications and their views.
While the report has received a fair amount of respectful attention, a
look at its content leaves one wondering how a mountain can be made out of
such a molehill. For one, the study was limited to six executive-office
races and one Senate campaign in 1998. Moreover, the differences in the
coverage of men and women were so slight that they could be simply an
For instance: nearly 17% of paragraphs in newspaper stories dealing with
women candidates had to do with the candidate's personal life, appearance, or
personality, compared to 12% for men. Since women's clothes almost
inevitably attract more discussion simply because women have far more options
in this area (how much can you write about the difference between black, navy
and earth-toned suits?), this falls a little short of a revelation.
Meanwhile, 31% of the text devoted to male candidates dealt with their
position on the issues compared to 27% for female candidates, and 62% of men
but "only" 56% of women were quoted backing up their statements with evidence.
The Women's Leadership Fund warns that these differences in coverage may
handicap women in political races. But this false alarm should be laid to
rest by a bare fact: when women run for office, their chances of winning are
as good as men's.
Sexism has not entirely vanished as an obstacle at the highest levels of
power. In a poll released last month, one in four male registered voters,
and nearly one in five women, did not like the idea of a woman president.
(Partly, this reflects the fact that more older people are registered to
Many believe it will take a Margaret Thatcher-style, probably
conservative "Iron Lady" to overcome these lingering doubts about female
leadership. Yet the irony is this is precisely the type of female
politician feminists would be least likely to support.
Today, women in public life are probably more likely to be hobbled by
feminist stereotypes than by sexist ones. Conservative Republican
Congresswomen have been criticized by some commentators for focusing on such
"masculine" things as taxes and regulations, rather than making "women's
issues" a priority. Even Republican moderates have been rejected by women's
groups as insufficiently feminist. Connecticut Congresswoman Nancy Johnson,
one of the staunchest abortion-rights supporters in the GOP, had worked with
the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women on many issues
over the years. Yet in 1996, NOW backed her Democratic challenger, saying
that Johnson had "shifted her focus away from representing the women in the
district and ... aligned herself with Newt Gingrich." Is a female politician
supposed to represent only women? If so, how does anyone expect men to vote
Real liberation means that no one should tell women in politics what
issues they should champion or what groups they should represent. Nor should
anyone expect women to bring us better governance. Will the country benefit
from having more women running for office and getting elected? Yes, but only
because we will be drawing on a larger pool of talented individuals -- not
because some of those individuals are
JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.
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©1999, Cathy Young