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Kathleen Reardon Headshot

Is a Female President Only a Pipe Dream?

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If it were simply a matter of qualifications, a woman would have become President of the United States a long time ago. So what's the hold up?

Certainly generalized bias against women, doubts about their leadership skills, and career discrimination are in the mix. It's likely, however, that something more subliminal and often unintentional plagues women's campaigns for high office -- the way we perceive and talk about gender differences.

Deborah Tannen wrote about how women are "marked" by many of their choices - even what should be rather innocuous ones like clothing and shoes. Male hairdos and haberdashery are limited and guided by common standards. Far fewer standards exist for women, so the resultant wide variations in shoes, hairstyles and clothing choices are enlisted as clues to personal and professional characteristics. In this way, perceived female political experience and expertise are enhanced or diminished by a host of choices women make, even before breakfast.

Moreover, there are an array of derogatory terms describing women that have no male equivalents. Robin Lakoff, Cal Berkeley linguistics professor emerita, views language choices as diagnostic:

If there exists a word that can be used of only the members of one gender, although both genders can participate in the behavior it describes (like "bossy"); if the same word has different meanings when used to describe one gender than the other (like "ambitious"); or if the same kind of behavior is described with one word for one gender, another for the other, positive for the first and negative for the second ("stud" vs. "slut"), that is strong evidence that males and females are being treated differently and the latter, in all probability, worse. So even a single word can reveal larger and deeper problems in the real world.

Are there enough American voters out there who know that they're influenced by biased perceptions merely because they've grown up in a culture that so frequently and negatively "marks" what women do and that we're all awash in words about women that add insult to injury?

All sad sack, poor me possible implications of this question rejected, there is a serious second question as well: Can any woman running for president get through the barrage of irrelevant criticisms to be expected everyday before she even opens her mouth?

Karl Rove's characteristic attack on Hillary Clinton's health was an attempt to claim the opening strike in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts campaign against her. Rove knew that while an "ill" man isn't a good thing, an "ill" woman borrows from the premise of "the weaker sex" with no need to openly state that detrimental characterization. His attack was also a two-for-one. The illness accusation opened the way to questions about Clinton's age. The U.S. is an ageist society, most particularly when it comes to women. So, the greater benefit of Rove's insult was the unspoken "old woman" implication that closely rode its coattails.

Before women candidates can even begin to make their arguments and present their platforms, they must face frequent verbal attacks intended to take them down a peg or more -- merely for being women. Is it too much to hope that more people grow aware of just how female candidates' behaviors are marked? Are political observers and journalists at last advanced enough to recognize when certain actions are being disparaged simply because a woman is taking them? Or do we remain suckers in a land of sophists, buying into innuendo, believing whatever's implied -- even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth?

Kathleen also blogs here and at Big Think.