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NYT Article: Kennedy Hampered By Gender-Based Double Standard


First Posted: 12-30-08 01:11 PM   |   Updated: 01-30-09 05:12 AM

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As the coverage of Caroline Kennedy's bid for the United States Senate has turned sour, a growing number of voices are starting to question whether there is a gender-based double standard at play. The critique is similar to that levied during Hillary Clinton's primary run and Sarah Palin's foray as a vice presidential candidate. And it likely will once again spur intense conversation about the role sex plays in electoral politics.

The next salvo is set to come in the form of a New York Times Magazine article to be published this Sunday. Author Lisa Belkin, in a piece titled 'The Senator Track,' lays out the argument that Kennedy is being unfairly criticized as being privileged and apolitical when her career path was in actuality maternal. Women, Belkin writes, are more likely to "slow down in their 30s when men are charging ahead, and come back with a new energy in their 50s."

"[L]et's stop with this talk of inexperience when we mean a range of experiences, many shaped by motherhood," Belkin writes.

That, however, is not the extent of the double standard that Belkin alleges. After all, she notes, there have been many male candidates with limited or no background in politics who used their personal wealth or public fame to become elected officials without much public outcry.

"Those who aspire to serve in Congress sometimes ''pay their dues'' by playing for the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. or starring on ''The Love Boat,' which are all less relevant qualifications for the job than financing city schools," Belkin writes.

Belkin concludes with a question: would Kennedy's credentials be picked apart with such vigor if she happened to be male?

Others have asked as much. In the midst of a somewhat silly bout of media coverage over how many times Kennedy said the phrase "you know" during her interviews, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell briefly questioned the fairness of such coverage.

"We all have verbal ticks," she said, "and even Barack Obama gets made fun of them on Saturday Night Live, with Fred Armisen doing the 'uh, uh.' Every time I hear Barack Obama I think of it ... But is it fair? Or is it sexist in some ways?"

Peter Roff, writing in U.S News and World Report, acknowledged experiencing a bit of déjà vu when it came to coverage of the Kennedy rollout.

"Having just been through this over the question of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's candidacy for vice president, we are again faced with the prospect of career partisans attacking a woman who has just entered the arena from outside it -- way, way, outside it," he wrote. "In much the same way that black politicians, at least prior to Obama's election, were damned with faint praise when cited for their "eloquence," the overarching focus on "qualifications"--especially as they apply to women seeking elective office -- is little more than an attempt to score a few quick, easy points and push them out of the way. It is unseemly, and it is wrong."

There are, of course, a number of distinctions that separate Kennedy, Palin and Clinton. Clinton may have been criticized for being a carpetbagger when she ran for Senate in New York, but it was largely believed that she had earned her political chops during her time as first lady. Palin, likewise, was making her move to the national stage from an elected post -- dulling some of the charge that she lacked the proper grooming (at least on domestic affairs).

But another telling difference is found in the reaction to the perspective candidacies of the three. Palin never engendered the sympathy of fellow women. Many, in fact, disputed the notion that treatment of her candidacy was sexist. Clinton, however, struck a cord with female voters, especially during the emotionally charged waning months of the Democratic primary. Kennedy seems to be following the path of the latter. A CNN poll released on Monday revealed that while 57 percent of women say the former first daughter is qualified for office, only 47 percent of men held the same opinion.

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