11/18/2007 09:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Am*BITCH*ous" Women, Presidential Aspirations -- and the B-Word

As a presidential candidate, one can expect to be called many things, especially if you're a woman and in the lead. But this past Monday, when a constituent asked Republican candidate John McCain a question about his Democratic rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, and referred to her using the b-word, we crossed a new threshold in the era of name-calling. The fact that the constituent who raised the question also happened to be a woman was a double-whammy.

The location was Hilton Head, South Carolina. The occasion was a public forum where the Republican presidential candidate was scheduled to appear. The question was, "How do we beat the bitch?" Senator McCain, obviously uncomfortable, initially offered to give a translation. But with a swift change of heart, he called it an "excellent question" but never reprimanded the constituent. Then he proceeded to answer the question, understanding clearly to whom it referred. He said, "there was a poll yesterday that shows me three points ahead of Senator Clinton in a head-to-head match up. I respect Mrs. Clinton".

Thus far, the reaction has focused on Senator McCain and his handling of the question. Some folks think he should have taken the constituent to task. Yet others are of the opinion that he could have 'defused the moment more artfully'.

But the burning question I have is, why did the constituent feel comfortable raising the question -- phrased in such a manner -- in a public forum? I found some answers to my question in a book titled am*BITCH*ous: Learn to be Her Now, written by psychologist Dr. Debra Condren. She notes, "there is just one word that our culture bestows on that supremely ambitious woman who unrepentantly values a career: bitch. It's our prevailing cultural paradigm: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitches".

The constituent's behavior was evocative of the sentiment that prevailed in the aftermath of Carly Fiorina's ouster as Chair and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Many people -- both men and women -- felt Carly had got her just dessert for being an overly ambitious woman, or that she had lost her "gender groove" in her quest to reach the top. Maybe the constituent this past Monday was hoping likewise to bring Senator Clinton down a notch or two.

As Dr. Condren observes, "our culture encourages women to derive [a] sense of self from being selfless, by giving to everyone else first and foremost". To the contrary, when I packed my bags and set off for college, my Grandma Mavis's farewell advice was "we are sending you to get an education, not to find a husband". Dr. Condren wonders, "wouldn't it be great if women could ignore what our culture thinks about high-achieving women and eliminate the fear part of our ambition equation?"

Come on, dare to be amBITCHous!