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Lisa Witter Headshot

Unfetter Women's Intellect on Campaign Trail

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I've got whiplash. That's how quickly the national discussion of women's leadership has changed from one of the merits of an accomplished senator turned potential first female president to the clothes of the potential first ladies.

Media coverage everywhere is "Michelle vs. Cindy." Where do they buy their dresses? Do they make bacon for breakfast? And, of course, which one can we compare to Jackie O?

Is anyone else as appalled as I am at how quickly we have gone back to thinking of women in the oldest of stereotypes -- as only wives and mothers?

I'm a wife. I'm a mother. I love my family. But I'm other things, too. We all know that the presidents' wives play an important role in policy and diplomacy in one way or another. Just look at the publicly recognized legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, which proves how a strong first spouse (it just happens to be that they've all been first "ladies" so far) makes a country stronger.

So why do we hide it by focusing on hair, clothes and what's on the breakfast table? Isn't this part of the mostly unspoken sexism that Sen. Hillary Clinton and even the media have highlighted all along?

In "Michelle Obama Highlights Her Warmer Side" in the New York Times Thursday, TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that "Mrs. Obama distanced herself from that model [of the assertive career woman] on The View, describing herself as a mother and not mentioning her law career or her views on policy."

How does not mentioning her career or policy positions make her warmer? Isn't this just another case of someone deciding that people can't handle a strong woman? Isn't this just another case of wives and women being forced into the "seen and not heard" box?

Clinton is probably having cookie-baking flashbacks.

The new focus on Obama's hair and hemlines comes right on the heels of the gender-biased way the media covered Clinton's campaign. If we let this go on, we risk losing an important opportunity to have a national dialogue about sexism.

We should be holding the media accountable for perpetuating stereotypes. If a white woman is strong, she's considered cold -- as the coverage of Cindy McCain has shown. If a black woman is strong, she's obviously angry -- so go the accusations about Michelle Obama.

But the responsibility doesn't just rest on the media. The campaigns themselves shoulder some of the weight, too. Do the McCain and Obama teams want to play into the stereotypes of first ladies that are only soft and sweet? Is Michelle going to quit giving her husband the "new high five" fist because it comes across as too strong? I hope not.

Four years ago I had both the pleasure and the somewhat freaky experience of running for "president" on Showtime's American Candidate. The show had 10 real Americans traveling the country, kissing babies, debating foreign policy and laying out five-point economic plans.

At each and every campaign stop, I was approached by women and girls who said, "Finally, someone who looks like me running for office -- a strong woman." I had to remind them that I was just playing a candidate on television, not actually running for the real deal.

While America's women and girls lost the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the top job this round, what we can't do is lose the opportunity to change the way women -- and first ladies -- are portrayed.

It's a tough line, no doubt. For the most part, we want to feel and look beautiful. We love our families and feel proud about our personal and professional accomplishments.

But if we let the conversation about the first ladies focus mostly on the role and status of the conventional "Mrs.," we've lost a huge opportunity to reframe gender and marriage dynamics in our country.

We all need to take it upon ourselves to strike up a conversation about how we can end sexism in America. Contact the press when they get it right -- and not so right. And I'm going to write Michelle Obama to let her know that when she portrays herself as strong, I feel strong, too.

If this election didn't fulfill the hopes and dreams of many women and girls who wanted to see themselves reflected in the White House, the least we can do for them is use it as an opportunity to change the frame of wives and women from here on out.

Note: Article first appeared in Newsday, June 23, 2008.