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The presidential woman: does she really have the public’s support?

Whatever I’ve accomplished this week, I have done my part to make the world a better place. I’ve filled out a big white form and mailed it off to the Town Hall in Durham, New Hampshire, where I grew up. A few weeks from now, I’ll phone the town clerk to make sure that my form has safely arrived and that my name appears on her list. If it doesn’t turn up, I’ll keep on phoning until she scours her office. Four years ago, I made so many calls that I had only to say “Hello” and she’d answer, with a broad Noo Hampshuh accent, “Oh, is that Roner?”

It can take this kind of persistence to cast an absentee ballot in a U.S. presidential election, but no amount of bureaucratic confusion will deter me from voting for Barack Obama. As former President Clinton tellingly put it earlier this week at the Democratic National Convention, I’m convinced he’s “the best man for this job.” But the fact is, I’d rather be voting for Hillary, who looked so confident, gracious and…well, presidential as she eloquently rallied her supporters to get behind Barack.

By now there’s wide agreement that Team Hillary blew the campaign on a number of fronts. She did not lose because she was female. And yet, as Gail Sheehy writes in a recent Vanity Fair post mortem, it was the inconvenient fact of her gender that pushed her supporters to downplay her empathetic side and come on like a warrior queen—armoured, unyielding and aggressive. Her champions compounded the problem by calling her “the only candidate with the testicular fortitude to be President.”

The entire spectacle brought back memories of the 70s, when young women like me were setting out to make a place for ourselves in the corporate world. We were told to look as masculine as possible (crisp shirt and navy blue suit), to talk sports with the guys and to purge our offices of tell-tale female paraphernalia like plants, knick-knacks and (horrors!) photos of the kids. It was bad advice that cut us off from our own distinctive gifts as women. Generally speaking, we’re more attuned to others than men are. To pretend otherwise was to lose ourselves. So why did we play the game? To prove we weren’t the stereotypical emotion-driven woman.

A new U.S. poll from the Pew Research Center, “Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?”, proves that sexual stereotyping is still around (albeit in attenuated form) to bedevil women running for public office. On the face of it, the news is good: almost 70% of Americans believe that men and women are equally suited for leadership. What’s more the public rates women higher than men on most traits associated with leadership. We’re said to be more honest, intelligent, hard-working, compassionate, outgoing and creative. On ambition, we’re equal to men. But they supposedly have a big edge on—get ready for it—decisiveness.

Tellingly, respondents also thought men were far superior to women at confronting issues relating to crime, safety, national security and defense. Women trumped men on the softer side of the public office equation (e.g., standing up for beliefs and representing people’s interests). But apparently we still have to prove that a nation can count on us when war or terrorism threatens. When respondents were asked why more women aren’t elected to top positions, the most frequent answer was too many Americans aren’t ready for women.

Hillary has said that the glass ceiling now has 18 million cracks in it. Perhaps John McCain had this in mind (along with a boost to his septuagenarian image) when he chose 44-year-old first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, to the dismay of more seasoned and obvious contenders. McCain lauds her strong sense of ethics and courage in fighting corruption. Just like a woman, you might say: honest, intelligent and compassionate. But this particular woman was not elected Governor until 2006 and earned her political spurs as mayor of a town with fewer than 7,000 people. If John McCain dies in office, is she ready for the highest office in the land?

Back in the 70s, when women were scrambling for a break, we used to talk with raised eyebrows about “token women.” God forbid that we should be slapped with that most dismissive of labels. Looking back on the so-called “tokens,” I see plenty of honesty, intelligence and compassion. By and large, those women weren’t bunnies. But they weren’t ready for leadership.

Oh, one more thing. There’s the matter of Sarah Palin’s views: for the NRA and the teaching of creationism, fervently opposed to abortion. Is this John McCain’s idea of courting Hillary’s supporters? For anyone who cares about the place and prospects of women in public life, it’s going to be a revealing election.

Click here to read my earlier post about Hillary.


Posted by Rona

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