Women leaders -- collect them all!

What can we learn from successful female politicians? Not much, until we get a lot more of them

By Kate Harding
December 29, 2009 1:29AM (UTC)
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The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, who covered both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin extensively during the 2008 campaign, has written a book, "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling," on what she's learned from and about women in politics — and, as the subtitle says, "What It Will Take for a Woman to Win" the presidency. I look forward to reading the whole thing, but here's what I've learned from the excerpts and related items currently running in the Post: We still haven't had enough women in politics at all, let alone at the national level, to draw many firm conclusions.

Take Kornblut's tips for "How to shatter the 'highest, hardest' glass ceiling," which include: Beat breast cancer. No, really. Surely, it's a tongue-in-cheek strategy suggestion, but given the number of female politicians who have successfully leveraged their triumph over the disease to improve their image — Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell — it might just be one of the best. By contrast, only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have provided evidence that advice like "Don't take women — especially young women — for granted" is sound.


Then there's the "Women Leadership Styles" piece (which notes that former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is "is pointing to her recent survival of breast cancer as evidence she is tough" in her campaign to unseat California Sen. Barbara Boxer), which identifies five models, including one ("The Businesswoman") that is admittedly "untested." Beyond that, the "Iron Lady" has a good track record internationally, but only Clinton and Madeleine Albright fall into that category in the U.S. We apparently favor "The Prosecutor" — e.g., Napolitano, Gregoire, Claire McCaskill, Amy Klobuchar, and Jennifer Granholm — although "The Young Mom" can sometimes be a crowd-pleaser. Reps. Wasserman Schultz, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Linda Sánchez have done all right with that, but then, the only female governor of Massachusetts, Jane Swift, might have been forced out because she gave birth while in office, and the other noteworthy figure in this category is Sarah Palin. On the upside, if Jane Swift waits until she's a bit older to try again, her maternal image could make her a fabulous "Grandmother in Pearls" — a love of children is evidently an asset as long as you're done raising them — à la Nancy Pelosi. Who, although she "is, after all, the most successful woman in American political history" is also the only woman working that particular model, making it not so much a "women leadership style" as "one woman's persona." And that's the whole list. (As Bitch Ph.D.'s M. Leblanc tweeted, "Women leaders, get them in ALL THE FLAVORS!!!")

So the path is clear for little girls who want to be politicians when they grow up: Become a successful prosecutor with young children and grandchildren simultaneously, and never let work interfere with your home life, or vice versa. Failing that, cultivate an image of toughness — and enough actual toughness to endure all the jokes about your either having testicles yourself or being inclined to remove other people's — or become CEO of a huge corporation and cross your fingers that that will work someday. Bonus points if you survive breast cancer. Oh, also, in the immortal words of Ani DiFranco (whom you probably shouldn't listen to unless you want to grow up to be some kind of commie, but still), "God help you if you are an ugly girl/'course too pretty is also your doom." If, like Clinton, you dare to have undereye bags in your 60s, you'll be savaged. If, like Pelosi, you have obvious work done to counter the criticism that you look too much like an actual aging woman, you'll be savaged for that, too. And if, like Granholm, you're younger and conventionally beautiful — hey, guess what! Also a problem! "Voters can find a woman attractive, but they don't necessarily think that translates into gravitas," writes Kornblut. Neither, apparently, do a Harvard law degree and experience as a prosecutor, at least until you fug yourself up in television ads. Says one of Granholm's advisors, "When we took it down a notch, people said, 'OK, she can be governor.'" God bless America.

And of course, there's Palin — an inescapable part of the conversation whether we're discussing beauty queen governors, female presidential contenders, moms of young children, the 2008 election or a laundry list of other issues. Her very omnipresence in articles and now books about women in politics only serves as a reminder of how few serious success stories there have been from which we can draw lessons for the future. Kornblut lumps her in with all the others in these short pieces, as though Palin's just one more highly accomplished woman butting her head into that glass ceiling, sidestepping the fact that — although she's taken her share of purely sexist criticism — the former Alaska governor's reputation suffers most because she distorts facts, presents ignorance as a virtue, translates the Constitution as saying that freedom of speech means freedom from criticism, et frickin' cetera. That this is one of the most visible women on the political stage — a fluke and a national embarrassment — is all the evidence necessary to prove that we still don't know jack about what it takes for a woman to succeed on merit at the highest levels. And when the number of successful female politicians is so pathetically small that even an expert on the subject is reduced to offering insights like, Umm, it probably helps to be an average-looking breast cancer survivor, and having kids is good except when it isn't, all that tells me is that we need to elect a hell of a lot more women before seeking patterns in their examples will be worth the trouble.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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