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On Mother’s Day, a look at selected titles on women in politics

In 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton drew sexist flak from not only foes but also some considered to be potential backers.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton drew sexist flak from not only foes but also some considered to be potential backers.

Something’s in the air.

EMILY’s List just launched its “Madam President” campaign to recruit women for our highest office. A recent poll of voters in nine battleground states found 86 percent think America is ready to elect a female president. Another poll said 65 percent of Democratic voters would choose Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Meanwhile, there are now a record-breaking 20 women in the US Senate. Will Hillary run? Is it time to shatter more glass ceilings? Can women “lean in” in government as well as business? Has the time arrived? It’s Mother’s Day, 2013 — a fine time to dig into the highly hopeful, frankly frustrating topic of women in politics.

I’ll open with two titles on the pivotal election year of 2008. The first is “Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win” (Crown, 2009) by The Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut. How painful but not surprising to recall the sexist vitriol thrown at Clinton: the hecklers with a sign that read “Iron My Shirt,” the Hillary “nutcrackers” for sale, the time Tucker Carlson made a castration joke as in, when she’s on TV, “I involuntarily cross my legs.”

More stunning is to recall how potential male supporters on the left crossed the line. Jon Stewart, for instance, cracked that Clinton’s Iraq policy was “America, Let’s Pull Over and Just Ask for Directions.” Mike Barnicle said she looked like “everyone’s first wife standing outside probate court.” As for Palin, let’s not forget the Caribou Barbie stuff, or how a senior aide to John McCain said her questionable behavior was because of postpartum depression.

Here’s the sticky wicket, though: Women candidates often have the hardest time with women voters, not men. “There’s a default brain wave that politics is a man’s world, not a woman’s world,” says Democratic consultant Chris Esposito. He means not just that men still have the upper hand, but that women judge each other like crazy. The thinking goes like this: How can you hold office and raise kids at the same time? (I couldn’t.) Why would you want to be around those lying, corrupt men in Washington? (I wouldn’t.)

Then there’s the problem of appearance. “Beauty is beastly,” as they say. If a candidate tries to improve her looks, she’s deemed superficial. If she’s a hottie, she’s not taken seriously. Kornblut reports how Michigan focus groups in 2003 thought Jennifer Granholm “too pretty” to be governor. So her staff ran ads in black and white, not color, and this “took it down a notch,” as one adviser said. She was elected.

That damned if you do/damned if you don’t dynamic is pervasive. If you show your emotions while campaigning, you’re too feminine. Don’t, and you’re too masculine. Women’s motives are supposed to be purer than men’s, but too pure, they lose elections. Kornblut thinks we’re far from working through these conflicts, and the 2008 election — neither Clinton nor Palin reached the White House, after all — was a big setback for women’s rights.

Rebecca Traister of Salon begs to differ. She says the women’s movement “found thrilling new life” that same year, citing the new wave of feminist bloggers and activists. If you want the glass-half-full story, turn to her “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” (Free Press, 2010). Much of it zeroes in on the struggle many college-educated women felt: Go for Obama, and in the bargain fight racism, or for Clinton, and fight sexism. (Democratic women without college degrees more heavily favored Clinton, by the way; they identified with her resiliency.)

Traister also spotlights our generational split. Many younger women think they’ve got all the rights they need, that feminism is their mother’s musty cause. But Traister quotes Nora Ephron: Never forget, Ephron said at a Wellesley commencement, “every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.”

Given that 51 percent of the electorate are women, why do women compose only 18.3 percent in the House and Senate? That ranks us 77th worldwide for percentage of women who hold legislative seats. We’re voting in ONLY SLIGHTLY more at the executive state level (23.4 percent) . The other day, I did a little experiment and asked some friends to guess the number one reason why women don’t run for office. “Family commitments?” said one. “Hatred of Washington?” said another.

No. It’s because they aren’t asked.

So I learned from “Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead” (Chelsea Green, 2008) by the wise, funny, inspiring former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin. Women aren’t drafted, she says, because there’s no old girls network (though that’s changing, thanks to groups like EMILY’S List and Running Start). But even if they are asked, most women demur, insisting they aren’t qualified — hmm, lack of traditional credentials didn’t bother Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, or Al Franken. You know how Kunin began in politics? She wanted to get a flashing red light INSTALLED at a railroad crossing near where her four kids played. She finally succeeded. It felt fantastic.

This one goes out to the moms, then: Consider that many congresswomen started out advocating for their kids’ schools, and then joined the school board (like Frederica Wilson of Florida and Judy Chu of California). A generation ago, women mainly entered political life if they came from political families (House minority speaker Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor of Baltimore) or ran as the widow of a political husband (former Maine senator Olympia Snowe). But the doors to experience are multiplying.

Kunin’s book, at heart, is a recruitment tool, arguably suited for the motivational books section. Indeed, she raises and bats down each rationale women use to sit out a run (bad timing, loss of privacy, aversion to conflict). And she adds that no one tells you how much joy comes in running for and holding office. She says there are just four requirements for the job: You must like people, embrace public speaking, be open to taking risks, and be willing to ask others for money. I can think of 20 friends that fit that description. How about you?

“It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office” (Cambridge University , 2010) supplies rigorous research for Kunin’s themes by analyzing two batches of data from a Citizen Political Ambition Panel study. Authors Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox confirm how women are less likely to be asked, deem themselves worthy, or say yes. Does discrimination keep us from throwing our hats in the ring? Yes — but not as much as lack of ambition.

Dee Dee Myers thinks this is a great shame. Here are a few reasons Bill Clinton’s former press secretary wrote “Why Women Should Rule the World” (HarperPerennial, 2009). One: If women are held back from political leadership roles, their concerns get ignored. Two: Motherhood is not an impediment to public life, but an ideal training ground. Three: If more women governed, we’d have less gridlock. I’m not sure I buy this — women can be just as partisan as men. But Myers quotes an insider, Maine Senator Susan Collins: “My experience has been that women tend to be better at working across the aisles and are more pragmatic and results-oriented.”

This Mother’s Day, three years from the possible election of the first female president in American history, let’s dream the possible dream with our friends, sisters, daughters, and mothers. We can run, you know, but we can’t hide.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
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