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Playing the Gender Card: The Myth of Meritocracy and Individuality in America

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With the dust finally settling over whether Senator Clinton and her staff invoked the "gender card" as a cover for her lackluster performance during the latest presidential debate I am reminded of a question former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder had to persistently confront when she ran for U.S. Senate. When asked whether she was "running as a woman," Schroeder, always witty and wise, would reply, "Do I have a choice?"

Political campaigns where women, or any candidate who is the one and only representative of difference, are full of "double binds" and contradictions. The 'one and only' candidate is forced by virtue of that difference to behave in certain ways that acknowledge that difference and yet also act as if it is not there at all.

What does it mean to be the 'one and only' woman? It means being forced to both live with the continuing stereotypes of being a woman while simultaneously defying them. It means being "tough" without losing your appeal as a woman. And it means being an "insider" (one of the boys) while also demonstrating that you have the freshness of an "outsider."

And for women voters it carries a special added attraction of being "perfect" because you are a "stand-in" for all women whether you like it or not.

In 2000, my organization, The White House Project, studied the effect of numbers in how the press treated women when they were the 'one and only' candidate. That was a year when a record number of women were running for governor and Elizabeth Dole ran for the Republican nomination for president. We called our governor's study affectionately our "Hair, Hemlines and Husband" study.

What we discovered is that if there was only one woman in the race, she was always looked at more personally and less substantively by both male and female reporters. The media was more apt to look at her appearance than her positions on issues. Two candidates were usually a catfight or a comparison (one wore a light blue suit, one a dark blue). Obviously, this slanted coverage diminishes authority in a sector that has been largely devoid of women in leadership.

These studies confirm what social scientists who studied the effects of tokenism in the 1970s found when companies were integrating women into management: If you want women to have a level playing field where they can be themselves and not struggle to blend, to be "man enough for the job" or to be a mascot, then you must have numbers.

Critical mass is the key, and that means a third or more. In the 2008 presidential race, for instance, none of this would be an issue if there were three or more women running. If you had Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Governor Katherine Sebelius of Kansas competing alongside Senator Clinton, we would see the debate move beyond gender and focus on the agenda each candidate, man or woman, would bring to the race. After all, isn't that the point?

Until that day, Senator Clinton has to walk a gender tightrope, acting as if she's walking on solid ground.

There is no "gender card." And it's not like the deck is just stacked against or for any woman. It's about a myth that we live in a meritocracy.

This question about whether Clinton should be treated differently is a false one. The real question is when will there be as many women as men, as many people of color as whites, standing side by side on the cornfields of Iowa canvassing for primary voters to win their party's presidential nomination?