Is America is ready for a woman president? I don’t care; I’m not even sure what it means to be “ready.” But the public’s readiness for a female president is big news these days, given the possible presidential bids from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Every time a potential woman candidate for president emerges, it’s the same debate – and it’s one that circles around the same stereotypes. Can Americans trust a woman to handle national security? Perhaps her natural compassion and inherent skill at education and health policy would make up for it.
The prevalence of women leaders around the world, however, suggests that it doesn’t really matter whether America is “ready.” By all measures, Chile wasn’t ready – the country has a mostly deserved reputation for sexism and it just legalized divorce in 2004 – yet voters elected Michelle Bachelet president this year.
But what is clear – and does matter – is whether the media are ready for a woman president. It’s the media framing the candidates, the debate and often the election. And to that particular question of readiness, the answer is clearly no.
When Gov. Jennifer Granholm received the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002, The New York Times called her “Jenni” on first reference and described her as “the giant-slayer, a former beauty queen turned Phi Beta Kappa lawyer who ran for office the first time only four years ago.” The piece later offered more detail: “A mother of three, she offers a fierce handshake followed by a soft shoulder touch, and appeals to voters by looking directly into their eyes with her clear blue ones.” Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to call her a political newcomer?
In the Daily last week, Michigan Student Assembly presidential candidate Nicole Stallings was likened to “Career Barbie,” with “coffee-colored eyes and an easy smile.” Opponent Rese Fox was spared some of the typical rhetoric, but she was still described as “bubbly” and a “nice girl.”
These portrayals aren’t the exception; they’re the norm. Although the lack of female leadership is much less severe here at the University, candidates for student government still face the student version of this national “discussion” of women in power. Women leaders, still a novelty in many areas, are subject to a double standard on everything from their platform to their haircut. And it’s their haircut, not their platform, that receives undue attention.
I can wish that appearance never mattered in politics, that each candidate could campaign with a paper bag over his head and the results would be the same. But appearance does matter, and gender completely changes the framework by which we judge. An attractive, young male candidate? The next JFK. Make that an attractive, young female candidate? Unelectable. She’s too hot, she won’t command authority, she isn’t masculine enough – and besides, she probably slept her way to the top.
In addition to the media’s mistreatment and stereotyping of female politicians, that we haven’t yet elected a woman president might also have something to do with a lack of female politicians in the political offices that are often stepping stones to the White House. The pool of women is smaller given that Congress is more than 85 percent male, and there are just eight women governors. For these offices, just as for any other, female candidates face the same obstacles and must confront the same stereotypes.
In 2000, Mattel Corporation released President 2000 Barbie as a role model to inspire young girls to enter politics. I’m not too comfortable with girls modeling their dreams and identities off their Barbie dolls; I thought we moved past that. And indeed, many of us have – the Daily was inundated with letters last week from students upset about the “Career Barbie” reference.
Those who wrote to the Daily last week were completely right to do so, but there’s more to being taken seriously as a female politician than not being compared to a doll. Before the “special attention” a female politician receives in the media is set aside, it must no longer be news that a politician is both capable and a woman. Only then will discussing how motherly or caring a female candidate is become as anachronistic as comparing her to a Barbie doll.
Beam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.