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Robin Lakoff

Robin Lakoff

Posted: June 10, 2010 02:25 PM

Day of the Women

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A remarkable number of women achieved success in today's primary elections. But what do their victories suggest about the current status of women in U.S. politics, and elsewhere, at this time?

I think there are several possible answers, any, all, or none of which may be true.

First, the predominance of women might just be the result of a series of coincidences. Each of the candidates won for a different reason. There are no generalizations, nothing linking one victory to another.

Perhaps women and men have always had equal interest in and talent for electoral politics, but only now have women become able to make full use of those interests and talents. Until now, for a woman to run for high electoral office was to run a gauntlet: her markedness made her the butt of misogynistic humor and scandalous rumor. This was certainly the case as recently as the 2008 Democratic primaries -- perhaps belated embarrassment at the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton has ushered in a more egalitarian perspective.

Or the victories might be the result of the anti-incumbency spirit sweeping the nation. Many of these women (for instance Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California) were in fact political outsiders. At a more symbolic level, women are still seen as newcomers to the old-boys' networks, not involved in the wheeling and dealing characteristic of modern electoral politics -- uncorrupted and maybe even incorruptible. Despite lots of evidence that women are really not much better than men when they achieve power, we don't envision them playing games along with men in their smoke-filled rooms. Women are pure. Women raise our children. So we are loath to see women as no better than anyone else.

If this is an explanation, even partial, for today's results, it is not an unambiguous good one. To achieve full human status, women must be seen as fully human -- sometimes virtuous, often flawed -- just like men. If women remain on the traditional pedestal, we will expect too much of women who achieve high power, and we will judge them more harshly than we would men for similar misbehaviors (one of the possible lessons of the Helen Thomas debacle).

Interestingly, though, women may at this moment have an advantage in politics. That notion of "purity," dangerous though it may be, may work in a female candidate's favor. Consider the case of Nikki Haley in South Carolina. Toward the end of the primary race, two men came forward claiming that they had had "inappropriate physical contact" with her; she denied both charges. The result? In a four-person race, she got 49% of the vote.

The accusations seem to have worked to her advantage: the men came off as oafish cads -- locker-room braggarts and worse. (The fact that one of the accusers worked for a rival candidate didn't enhance the plausibility of his claim.) I suspect that if a male candidate were hit by the same charges, it would have been much harder for him to refute them, in part because "boys will be boys" -- we expect it of men in politics (especially, maybe, in South Carolina). So the "specialness" of women and assumptions about their greater virtuousness may work for them in politics, as may the perception that they are not traditional players. But as women become more "normal" in political roles, these advantages may vanish.

I can think of one final interpretation. Since women began to have equal or nearly equal access to careers in prestigious fields, a correlation has been observed between the increasing percentage of women in a field, and a decrease in prestige, respect, and salary within that field. The correlation has been observed, for instance, in law, medicine, and academia. Nobody knows for sure how to explain these connections, but they show up repeatedly.

We have seen, in recent decades, the reputations of politicians, and politics more generally, plummeting in this country, especially as the discourse of politicians and pundits alike gets coarser. From the beginning of the Republic, politicians have been the objects of scurrilous attacks, but the level and frequency of those attacks have both increased recently, due in large measure to the increase in media outlets. But at least it used to be the case, at least sometimes, that holders of high office were treated with a modicum of respect. In recent years, such respect has become increasingly rare.

If politics works like other once-prestigious fields, then the increasing success of women in it is not altogether an encouraging sign -- it may be a symptom of the culture's doubts about politics and its players. And while I am inclined to applaud the success of so many women today in a field formerly all but closed to them, the correlation between women's presence in a field and its fall in prestige is still worth contemplating. At the very least, today's results should be a wake-up call: what must we do to restore political service to a place of honor, so that the people who enter it will continue to be the best and the brightest?