On the Road to Election Day, Part III: How much do we have to put up with?

BlogHer Original Post

No candidate for political office should have to put up with any test of his or her mettle beyond what is demanded by the role of occupying that job and serving the public.  And yet, time and again - the current time as good as any - we read about, hear about or witness examples of just how incredibly harsh the light can be shined on someone seeking public office.  This Women's Media Center video called, Sexism Sells But We're Not Buying It, is a classic that everyone, man or woman, needs to see on the off chance that they don't agree with this assertion:

Sometimes, we say, that's what you get.  But we are, in part, to blame: it's what titillates us. And so, it's what the media offers us. And so, it's what we get.  Just take a look at the headlines on the Huffington Post's front pages or those on Politico, where this is currently the biggest thing they've got going:

Ensign's Mistress May Decide His Future

Of course, Ensign is still in office.  But if this were a woman... (and let's not even start talking about how the media shapes the stories that do feature women: this article is drawing us in with a headline about a woman as mistress and in control; ugh - why is it not about Ensign and his unabashed belief that if he just keeps apologizing, he should not only be able to stay in office but deserves re-election?).

Sarah Palin's resignation and Hillary Clinton's acceptance of the cabinet position of Secretary of State demonstrate two dramatically different paths in terms of how female politicians have chosen to deal with the bright lights, though not necessarily big cities - just public-owned mansions like the White House.  And yet, even as they've made these choices, the unabashed sexism continues, as Jenn Pozner wrote about for NPR last week in her oped, Hot and Bothered: Media Treatment of Sarah Palin. Tina Brown's piece in The Daily Beast just yesterday demonstrates how some Clinton supports continue to feel about the sexist mistreatment of Clinton. 

Entire books have been written about why women don't run for office, and the fear of having too thin skin plays a big role. More recently, and in part because of the attention groups like the Women's Media Center have been giving sexism in the media toward female politicians, some say that women won't run and don't run because they just don't want to be picked apart for what they look like rather than how they think or work (though of course WMC's hope, and mine as well, is that by highlighting such sexism in the media, we can eliminate or at least neutralize it).

Then there is issue of family and having one's children, if the candidate is a parent, brought into the campaign.  Now, maybe this is a more gender neutral issue - men are, after all, also parents.  But because our society continues to place a different set of expectations, still, on women regarding childrearing as compared to men, there's an expectation that when a woman runs for office and has a family that anything happening with her children could reflect more on her, in relation to her political run, than would reflect on a male candidate. 

Ohio is seeing this play out, as I reference in this post, in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary between Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner. Both have children and recently, the financial issues one of Brunner's adult children has had, though it's an admittedly small issue even by newspaper accounts, has been running its course in some mainstream media outlets and blogs.

Then there's how women are treated if they're pregnant while in office. From a 2007 letter to an editor regarding New York's Kirsten Gillibrand: Regarding a story that appeared in The Post-Star on Dec. 6: "Rep. Gillibrand announces she is pregnant."

First of all, I must admit that I am a male chauvinist and that there are, thankfully, differences between men and women. There are many occupations suitable for women and their physical attributes. Carrying a weapon while serving in the Armed Forces and firefighting are not suitable lines of work for women to prove that they are physically equal to men. How many male police officers feel comfortable with a 100 pound female backup?

And now, I have to add serving in the U.S. House and Senate as an occupation that may not be suitable for women.

Ms. Gillibrand's current pregnancy makes a strong case for my opinion. Ms. Gillibrand was elected to serve her constituency, and while she is away from her elected office she cannot perform those duties. The taxpayers who were duped into voting for her will have to pay for her medical benefits. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, Ms. Gillibrand receives excellent health benefits, courtesy of her constituents. We will be without representation in Congress for a time leading up to and following the child's birth. There will be times when she and the new baby will visit doctors. You can add those days to the total that she will not be serving her constituents.

The current base salary (2006) for members of the House and Senate is $165,200 per year. I wonder if Ms. Gillibrand will do the right thing and reimburse the U.S. Treasury in the amount of $452.60, her daily salary, for each day that she is unable to perform her elected duties. For some reason, I doubt it.




If you tell me this man is unique, I will not believe you.  

And of course, just look at how Sonia Sotomayor has been treated.

So - what does it take, how must a woman think, in order to override this concern about how she will be treated and then seek political office?  Not even beyond the question of whether some attack is "fair" or "within bounds" but that such attacks and such exposure happen at all?

Where do you draw the line? When do you draw the line? If you are okay with women saying, "Pfffft" and just staying away from public service through elected office, how are you okay with it?  

Me? I see the existence of this potential barrier to seeking political office as a failure of us as voters and as a failure of the system if we, as voters, do not press the system to do better - whichever system it is we're talking about. We must demand, in every race, at every level, that the candidates and everyone who reports on them help us learn what is relevant about a candidate, and that they do that without resorting to personal, sexist, gendered and irrelevant provocation.

Further reading:

The Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee seeks to get more women into politics

EMILY's List started a new blog, Read My Lipstick, intended to support its efforts to get women involved

National Organization of Conservative Women's blog



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