12/06/2007 11:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Countdown to the Caucuses II -- Gender and Race Matter When You're the One and Only

In 1984 I won a hotly contested Des Moines City Council election against many men. But sometimes I think, the race was really all about my hair.

Yes, after every speech, people would come up to me -- a few with questions or comments about what I had said -- but far too many to tell me I had "great hair." Now what I actually have is hair so coarse that it stays put. But I learned something: there is such a thing as "political hair" -- Ann Richards had it too -- it just doesn't move.

People deny that gender matters, that they even see "gender."

People do this about race as well. They do it to be fair -- they want to BE fair -- acting as if ours is a meritocracy and like these differences don't matter, that they have become "invisible."

It ain't so.

But what WILL make them "normal" is when there are numbers of women leaders vying on the Iowa planes competing for the presidency. The same goes for corporate board rooms and executive suites, for that matter.

Until then, gender does matter.

What will move beyond gender to agenda is when women are in there in numbers large enough that it's normal. THEN and only then will we be able to focus on AGENDA, which is just where our attention should be.

One of The White House Project's earliest pieces of research was a study of how the press treats women when there is one woman. We looked at the press coverage of Elizabeth Dole in the 2000 presidential primaries, as well as her Senate race and the races of a record number of women who ran for Governor that year.

We call these studies, affectionately, our "hair, hemlines and husband" studies.

The results: whether male or female reporter, women candidates are consistently treated less substantively and more personally.

Why? Not because the press is monolithic or even misogynist: the press's job is to cover what's different and when there is ONE woman that's a no-brainer-- her gender as marked by appearance. The problem is that this kind of coverage, subtle as it may be, slowly erodes women's authority.

As a top notch reporter covering Dole said to me when I asked why she led her story with Dole's appearance, she was quick to reply. "If you think I'm going to ignore Elizabeth Dole's green suit, you are crazy". Poor Dole switched her position on gun control just before she came to New York, and the press still chided her for not wearing black in New York as an opener.

One woman is always "gender," and has to prove "she's man-enough for the job." Think Margaret Thatcher, the tough former leader of Great Britain.

Two women is a cat fight of a comparison.

When you get to three or more in a race or a third in a legislature, guess what -- gender does recede and agenda can prevail.

It's why there's been so much coverage about whether Obama is "black enough" and Clinton is "tough enough."

When you are the one and only, you have to live into stereotypes and outside of them, be an insider and an outsider.

When it comes to gender, things have changed. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for Vice President, they actually wrote about how she had nicer legs than her opponent, or how much better she would look in a wet t-shirt contest. Now the gender coverage is not as blatantly gendered but it still erodes a woman's authority, and women already struggle with authority, even Senator Clinton.

So monitor the press coverage, call or write a reporter who slips.