05/30/2007 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The XX Factor -- Contradictions and Stereotypes

Beyond Cindy Sheehan's decision to resume her private life, there are lessons to be learned about the nature of women in the public eye. Many women have challenged the system at great personal sacrifice. Just ponder these past couple of years for Ms. Sheehan -- whether you agree with her or not, it's not difficult to imagine the hell she's been through in her efforts to get our country to alter its obviously ineffective course. She has been vilified for her beliefs, verbally attacked, physically threatened, and in many ways, discounted. Women bring more than our stated opinions and pure activism to the so-called party, and we need to be aware of this. There are plenty of social mores, cultural dictates and gender-specific expectations that color our perceptions and inform our opinions. In some ways, women are held hostage to these persistent schema conflicts and stereotypes. Before we open our mouths, whatever message we wish to deliver will be distilled though some preconceived filters.

As we follow the political debate in the US, witnessing history as it is written, stereotypical descriptions of our female candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, continue to find their way into the dialog. As Anna Quindlen aptly noted in her May 28th piece in Newsweek, "Even when we said it was unfair to hold women to a higher standard than their male counterparts, in our hearts we did." For example, we still expect women who make it to the top in major corporations to run companies in a family-friendly way, with humane workplace conditions, and feel-good policies. We want their journalism to lean toward human-interest and the emotional angle, and we expect a woman's viewpoint on healthcare to include more patient contact, and a holistic, mind-body, and family-centric perspective.

Women are always more than meets the eye. Senator Hillary Clinton has to do much more than be knowledgeable and astute about politics; she must also be prepared to be questioned about her husband's fidelity, her hairstyle, her choice of clothing, and the way she communicates. She will be grilled about everything from her choice to be a working mother, to her right to change her mind about the war in Iraq. The fact that Mrs. Clinton is a strong woman should be playing to her benefit, but this valuable characteristic has more often been used against her. Strong woman? For many people, this description is a contradiction in terms -- a dichotomy, an oxymoron.

We're lucky to have a pantheon of female "greats" to look up to -- from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader in the U.S. Woman's Right's Movement, to Golda Meir, the original "Iron Lady" of Israeli politics -- but the conflicts and complications that are part of women's lives have followed us all the way. Women seem always to be juggling between two worlds; home and children, and career and ambition. Marie Curie, a pioneer in the research of radioactivity once said, "I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. "Well, it has not been easy." This sentiment endures.

Despite the fact that it's not easy, women are steadily making advances. All over the world, women have been elected to top political positions. It's rather humbling to yours truly, a woman raised with the mantra that the US is the leader of the pack, that other nations have trumped the United States in placing women in the highest office of the land; Golda Meir, (in office from 1969 to 1974), Margaret Thatcher, (in office from 1979 to 1990), and Mary Robinson, (in office from 1990 to 1997) are a few examples. Currently, Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany, (elected in 2005), Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the president of Liberia, (elected in 2005), Michelle Bachelet is the President of Chili, (elected in 2006), Micheline Calmy-Rey is the president of Switzerland, (elected in 2006), and Dalia Itzik is the acting president of Israel, (2007) just to name a few.

Though behind in this domain, women in the United States are finally jockeying up to position. In January 2007, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi became the 60th Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States; the first female ever to hold the office. And there may be more changes on the horizon too, as we ramp up for a presidential election with Senator Hillary Clinton as a frontrunner candidate for the Democratic nominee.

Whatever the outcome, we need to remember that women are taking enormous risks when they make a stand and try to change the status quo. Courageous women who expose themselves to multidimensional scrutiny are pushing against strong prevailing cultural biases, and a social context that until very recently, didn't bestow much credibility to a woman in the leadership role. A woman's worth -- in our own minds, as well as in the group think of society -- may well depend upon our coming to terms with an equality of spirit between the genders, even if the other things in life do not seem quite equitable. We should learn to benefit from our differences, not use them for ammunition.