11/12/2007 12:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gender Rules

I first realized that there were different parameters for male and female behavior in the schoolyard at St. Michael's school. There was a boy's side and a girl's side to the yard, and we fifth-graders mostly stayed on our sides, except when groups of boys made forays to chase the girls and snatch our book bags and hats.

After one of these raids, my friend Sally and I decided we'd had enough. We sallied over to boyland with steely eyes, pushing a half-dozen boys to the ground and getting back our purloined hats. Mine was a striped wool number that I especially treasured, and I didn't like seeing high fashion used in a stupid game of catch.

As it turned out, Sally and I were the ones who got in trouble. We were called before the principal, while various boys stood up to testify testified about our egregious behavior. (If I'd known about such things, I'd have sworn it was a Politburo purge.) When we protested that we were merely acting in self-defense, it was made clear that while boys would be boys, we were expected to uphold the genteel standard of behavior of nice young ladies.

I keep thinking about the hat grab incident as the presidential campaign grinds on. The fifth-grade rules, it seems, are still in force.

For example, imagine a woman running for president who was on her third marriage (having dallied with husband number three while still living under the same roof as husband number 2.) Imagine also that she was estranged from her children, one of whom was working for another candidate.

Imagine a woman whose husband came down with cancer during her campaign, who decided to continue running for president for the good of the nation.

Imagine a woman candidate married to man nearly 40 years younger.

Imagine a woman whose husband suffered from multiple sclerosis out campaigning for president.

Each of these scenarios is true for male candidates currently running -- Guliani, Edwards, Thompson, and Romney. But such behavior would violate a number of big-time taboos for a female candidate. She could not be seen to be violating her prime duty to care for an ailing spouse (the selfish scenario); she couldn't be multiply married (the harlot scenario); she couldn't be at odds with her kids (the bad mommy scenario); and she could not be seen as having married a "boy toy" (back to harlot turf.)

Women candidates walk a knife-edge between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In Hillary Clinton's case it's a delicate balancing act between shrill feminism and weak womanhood.

With perfect timing, a report report released last week by the management think tank Catalyst reflects this conundrum. In "The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't," Catalyst finds that gender stereotyping frequently places women business leaders in "double-bind, 'no-win' dilemmas." Men are still viewed as "default leaders" and women as "atypical leaders," with the perception that no matter what they do, they violate accepted norms of leadership,.

When women exhibit strong and assertive styles, they are seen as competent but not personable or well liked. But if they adopt a more stereotypically feminine style, they are liked, but seen as weak.

It's not just Hillary Clinton who encounters this double bind. When Elizabeth Dole ran for president in 1980, she hit the very same wall.

In early polls she was the only Republican who out-polled Al Gore. But researchers Caroline Headman, Susan J. Carroll and Stephanie Olson of Rutgers University noted that Dole, once a darling of the press, seemed to visibly shrink in media accounts the more serious she became. Before she ran for president, it was hard to find an article that didn't present Dole as accomplished, capable, and charming. Suddenly, Liddy Dole turned into the Wicked Witch of the West, over-ambitious, chilly and nasty under the "syrupy" Southern accent. Here's Time describing her with her staff:

"If a staff member is lax, the unlucky individual gets the LOOK -- set jaw, icy stare -- and is frozen out."

If a man presented this visage to his staff, he'd be seen as a forceful, take-charge personality.

Early on, the Rutgers' scientists report, Dole was never covered like her male colleagues. She never got the level of coverage that her polling indicates she should have had. In fact, she received about the same coverage as Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, two decidedly un-charismatic men who lacked polling strength and had little chance of winning. In most respects, Dole's coverage was similar to that of Forbes, Bauer and outsider Alan Keyes. George W. Bush and John McCain received much more coverage.

Often, the press focused on Dole's "first woman" status, giving the impression that she was a "backbencher," not the seasoned political operative she in fact was. In pre-primary days, the study found, John McCain received quite favorable attention, even when he was only a relatively unknown face in the crowd and well before he became a media star. He was often called a "presidential hopeful," while Dole was usually mentioned in terms of her presumed inability to raise money. "Dole was most often described as a candidate lacking fund-raising ability and a real shot at the nomination." Of course this became self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the press says you can't raise money, the more you can't raise money.

The press focused more on Dole's personality traits than those of other candidates. She was called "rehearsed, scripted, robotic, controlled, frozen, a "Stepford Wife." (Could these same qualities in a man be called "focused, stays on message, articulate?") Her speaking style was dubbed "Tammy Faye Bakker meets the Home Shopping Network." There was speculation about her sex life and her hairdo was compared to an immobile fabric that wouldn't wrinkle or stretch.

Today, when Hillary Clinton makes any reference to the fact that she's female, she's seen as playing the Gender Card. But nobody talks about the Testosterone Card when the guys fairly climb all over each other to proclaim who's going to bomb Iran first or smack down any hapless immigrant who tries to sneak across the border. Nobody wants to be, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a "girlie" man.

Will as this change anytime soon? Don't bet on it. As for me I'm just waiting for the day that a woman who has divorced three husbands, who is cavorting with a 20-something rock star with piercings, who bakes a mean apple pie and can hit a bird on the wing with a Glock 9 millimeter, gets the nomination.

Now that would be progress.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."