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Deborah King Headshot

Play the Hand You're Dealt -- Gender Card and All

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Is there a knee-jerk reaction to a woman on the presidential ballot?

Hillary Clinton--love her or hate her--offers us an extraordinary opportunity to examine our preconceptions about gender as we head into this presidential election. We hear reports of "playing the gender card" as if it were some sort of sophisticated sleight of hand. Yet there it is--right on the table in full view. Perhaps we do well to accept that this card has at last been played, then flip it over and take an honest look at it.

Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 when the19th amendment passed. Seventy-seven years later, we have our first serious female candidate on the presidential ballot and for a large percentage of the electorate polled her gender alone is a deal-breaker. A CBS poll reported 60% of men said this country is ready for a woman president; only 51% of women feel the same. Across the globe, women leaders are stepping onto the world stage. Since the turn of the century, women have held the highest-ranking seats in many European, Asian, South American and African countries. In 2007 alone, Argentina, India, Israel, and Switzerland placed women at the helm. Why not in America? And why are American women in particular reluctant to embrace a female head of state?

In a country that still has no equal rights amendment, where the primaries begin in Iowa--the only state besides Mississippi that's never elected a woman to high office--it's crucial to be honest about the attitudes influencing our perceptions and our votes. My question is: Are we being influenced by myths?

Myth #1: We need a "manly" man to protect us

The idealized image of a man as aggressive, competitive, logical, and rational, not to mention square-jawed and broad-shouldered is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Women are assumed to be emotional, passive, and illogical. Men are in command; women are followers. Men who show signs of compassion or tenderness battle the bias that 'strong' means stoic, and 'big boys don't cry.' President Jimmy Carter was held to ridicule for showing empathy and shedding tears when he was moved by strong emotion. As recently as 200 years ago, the biggest, strongest, most aggressive man kept his people safe. Circling the wagons, he had little need for diplomacy, historical perspective, or conflict resolution skills. The 'John Wayne' type of leader was appropriate then. It isn't now.

Myth #2: A woman isn't up to the job

This idea still lives in gender stereotypes, despite the fact that today, women are accomplished in formerly male dominated arenas. Thousands of women balance career and family and choose their own path rather than follow traditional roles. A woman president is a natural progression.

Sandra Day O'Connor invaded the 'old boys club' and won the ensuing struggle to survive. Graduating third in her class, O'Connor worked long and hard to obtain a position in a law firm. The only job offered her at first was a secretarial position. After fighting an uphill battle for many years, O'Connor started her own law firm. Later she became an assistant attorney general, eventually becoming a Supreme Court Justice.

When President and CEO Meg Whitman joined eBay, they had 29 employees. Under her direction, eBay grew into a global company with 11,000 employees. Asked why there aren't more women CEO's, Whitman said, "...this is fundamental social change, which when you think about it, does take an awfully long time."

Myth #3: The rest of the world will dismiss us

The truth is, our foreign negotiations may well benefit from the specially developed intuitive and diplomatic skills women possess. Women thrive on harmonious collaboration. They are masters at interpreting postures, gestures, emotions, and inflection--advantageous skills to have in heated negotiations.

Myth #4: A woman can't take care of us in times of war

The survival skill set that kept a man and his offspring alive through the ages was specificity of focus. He could zero in on the kill, be it a woolly mammoth or an enemy. Women evolved an ability to think broadly and see with a soft focus that allowed them to gather data--or plants, as it were--while men remained intent on the hunt. While testosterone makes men physically aggressive, a woman's hormones lean toward the "tend and befriend" end of the spectrum; she is far more circumspect when it comes to waging war. Yet, no one is as fierce as a woman when it comes to defending her loved ones against a threat.

Where are we today? Both genders are born with masculine and feminine attributes. Through centuries of interaction, both genders have grown to appreciate and nurture the other's traits. Men are able to be tender and loving parents. Men do feel and women do think and reason. Both are susceptible to temptations of greed and power; both are capable of caring acts and extreme heroism.

Where are we going? We are nearing the day when a woman will be president. In 1955, only 52% of polled respondents said they would vote for a qualified woman candidate of their party. Today, polls asking the same question report a 90% readiness. Previously, women have been disinclined to vote for a woman. As a law student in the 1970s, I witnessed and experienced the sad amputation of a woman's gender when she entered a 'man's world.' Once she had entered that realm, a feeling of resentment toward other women trying to join ranks was not uncommon. Women feel differently today.

In 2007, schoolchildren cannot fathom the mindset that found Rosa Parks shunted toward the back of the bus. Someday our children will be amazed that there was once such controversy surrounding a woman running for president. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton's presence is forcing our perspective and our ideas about gender to change.

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