11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Showdown in St. Louis: Gender vs. Agenda

Tomorrow night, eyes will be glued to TV sets across the nation for the Biden-Palin political showdown. Though historic in its own right, the debate will not be a political first: in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman candidate to hold her own in a vice presidential debate against then-VP George Bush. At the time, I was an eager first-term Councilmember-at-Large in Des Moines, and I channeled my enthusiasm for the historic face-off into quite the neighborhood debate watch party.

Everyone made a big deal of presidential politics in Iowa; as the traditional site of the first caucuses that tend to shape the road to the presidency, our interest in national politics was strong. Yet for this debate, the attraction was overwhelming -- the first woman to appear on a major party ticket would be "on trial" against a long-term, and very seasoned, opponent: the vice president of the United States. So we took the night on with fanfare, and I rented a sizable hall with a movie screen, inviting my constituents to watch history being made up close, large and personal.

Over two decades have past since that historic night, but Ferraro's considerations at that time were the same as Palin's will be when she takes the stage tomorrow evening: the evaluation of both her opponent and herself on the issue of who could best assume the presidency if something happened to their respective running mates; the need to attract those who were going to vote for the ticket based on the vice presidential selection; and the careful negotiation of her dual identities as candidate and woman. The latter was perhaps the most important for Ferraro, and may be for Palin as well: could she stand "toe to toe" with the vice president of the United Sates (or in Palin's case, an esteemed veteran senator) and hold her own?

The issues to which Ferraro had to speak were eerily similar to the ones confronting us today. What would her party do about the national deficit? How would they protect industrial jobs while protecting the environment? And on the international level, where did she stand in terms of diplomacy in the Middle East and Nicaragua and the popular call for a mutually verifiable nuclear arms freeze with Russia? While "bailout" was not a term in question, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic policies loomed large in regard to tax and budget policies that would be fair to the poor, the middle class, and minorities.

The stakes were high indeed -- not just for Ferraro the contender or for the Democratic party, but for Ferraro the woman candidate. When she told columnist Ellen Goodman that she felt she could not make a mistake, she said it was because "It's not just for me, it's for every one of us. To show that we're as good as--" "As good as men..." Ellen knowingly interjected.

That evening, the tension in the large Des Moines hall was palpable: we all knew that when it came to scrutiny around gender, Ferraro was right.

The big screen turned out to be an excellent cinematic choice: as the debate progressed, Ferraro did better and better, and seeing Bush's face up close, we were afforded a revealing view that many television viewers were not as he became visibly shaken. It seemed that the Vice President had underestimated this highly experienced congresswoman and former Queens district attorney, who could handle herself under pressure while maintaining a strong command of the issues. As I watched Ferraro's performance with increasing optimism, I turned to my best friend Lois Braverman, now the President of the Ackerman Institute here in New York City, who was analyzing it from a very different perspective.

"A woman can't make a man look this bad and survive," she whispered.

I looked at her quizzically, not wanting to concede any of my inner optimism, and kept watching and enjoying Ferraro shine on the big screen.

At the close of the Ferraro-Bush debate, I stepped to the platform at the front of the room, and with complete and utter confidence -- ignoring Lois's gendered perspective -- announced that we would now see how the press responded to this amazing piece of history.

Imagine my disheartened surprise when the anchors began to weigh in. I am pretty sure that Tom Brokaw was the first to announce that Bush had won -- and as the other male anchors followed in chorus, "Bush has won the debate!", my fellow Iowans watched my jaw drop in shock.

My own sense of reality began to crack. What I had watched with my own eyes and heard with my own ears was denied by every male with authority on every network across America. And so despite encouragement to stay in Iowa and shoot for governor or congresswoman, I instead left the next year to see if I could help my state from New York as head of the Ms. Foundation for Women. It was then that I began to realize that to really see women in power, and collectively admit when they had equaled or bested a man, we would have to work to change the very fabric of American culture. We would have to change the way people thought about women, and our understanding of what a leader really looks like.

The world has changed greatly in the past 24 years. I think that if that debate were held today, Ferraro would have been declared the winner. But I don't think that our national way of dealing with gender has evolved to the point where it won't be a lurking presence on stage tomorrow in St. Louis. Just as Ferraro before her, Palin will have to tend to the issues, as all candidates must and should. Yet her gender will be as much a factor as her agenda, as is always the case when women are underrepresented in the halls of power.

I don't think we are yet at any reverse point where you can't make a woman look bad and survive. What I do know is that gender issues are alive and well, and that it is up to the press and to us -- as voters and media consumers -- to give thoughtful and diligent attention to the ways in which gender is influencing our discussions and opinions. When we tune into the debate tomorrow night, let's pay attention to the agendas at play, not the genders which deliver them.