Women Officeholders Still Trivialized

If the media can't stay focused on substantive critiques of Rice, Clinton, and Pelosi's positions, then we have serious work to do.

It has been 15 years since the “Year of the Woman,” and many talented females sit in Congress, governors’ mansions, state legislatures and mayoral offices across the country. Women have come a long way in terms of political parity.

Political legitimacy is another matter.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) each illustrate this point. These women are savvy intellectuals who have navigated and mastered the political system and attained stature that makes them formidable.

Each woman has a megaphone to be heard — even on the most “manly” of issues, the war in Iraq — and in turn to be critiqued. That’s why Condoleezza Rice takes heat for designing the war in Iraq. And why Nancy Pelosi faces scrutiny for leading the charge against the war. And why Hillary Clinton gets it for refusing to characterize her vote for the war as a mistake.

But do serious critiques like these represent real legitimacy in the eyes of the media or real progress for women in terms of public acceptance of their leadership? Not entirely. These women command legitimacy and authority like few before them. Yet for them and many other women in politics today, stereotypes persist that weigh on their legitimacy.

As the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards once noted, if you are a woman in politics, the media is coming for you no matter what you do. “If you’re single, you couldn’t get a man. If you’re divorced, you couldn’t keep your man. If you’re married, you’ve abandoned your man. If you’re a widow, you killed your man.”

Richards may have overplayed the line about the widow, but women leaders are still judged on more than their experience. Indeed, the press today just loves Condi’s boots and Nancy’s Armani. And don’t forget the photo shots of Hillary’s hairstyles that ran next to critiques of her policy proposals the last time our nation tried to face the health care crisis.

I like fashion as much the next person, maybe more, but the bottom line is that serious, substantive women officeholders are often critiqued in terms of their femininity. To be taken seriously, women have the almost impossible job of covering every flank. They have to convince the press and the public that they’re simultaneously assertive and empathetic, independent and trustworthy, decisive and kind.

For women leaders, the internal balancing act necessary to avoid old criticisms invariably shapes their public personas and, in some cases, their substantive positions in ways not contemplated by men. Regardless of their accomplishments and authority, women leaders today still face the age-old question: Is she tough enough to do the job?

Men rarely face these expectations. Granted, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), had the “Breck Girl” problem, and people still talk about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s weight loss program. People may gossip about these things, but no one really questions the mental toughness or readiness of these men to lead. Male politicians face questions about their experience; female politicians must also answer more trivial queries.

The media engagement with Pelosi, Clinton and Rice is a test of sorts for our nation. If the media can stay focused on substantive critiques of their positions on the war and other policies rather than hairstyles, hot boots and hip size, it will raise the game for women and for the country. If not, then as a country, we have work to do.

Until then, and in the name of gender equity, I want a few more stories about House Minority Leader John Boehner’s tan — that can’t be real, right?

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