Friday, March 27, 2009

The Palin Effect

Photo of the day (left): Denmark's member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl votes as she attends a voting session with her baby at the European Parliament in Strasbourg March 26, 2009. (Reuters)

I see pictures like this one featured in the NYTimes this morning, and I feel hopeful that maybe – just maybe – we’re making some headway on the front of working mothers, specifically mothers in politics. As more and more women in leadership start to write their own rules on what a working mom really looks like, more professional women have models to pull from. I think of Nancy Pelosi taking the oath of office as Speaker of House surrounded by her grandchildren. I think of Cherie Blair asking her husband to take paternity leave while she continued to work. And it’s impossible not to mention Gov. Palin in this context. For all of the criticism, she did one thing well: she provided a striking image of a mother of young children as a female executive. The images of her holding her infant in a sling while signing legislation are powerful. Palin also revolutionized what a stuffy Governor’s office is supposed to look like, by installing a travel crib and baby swing in her offices.

However, Palin is equally responsible for perpetuating other, negative stereotypes for women in politics. When headlines are still made by a list of “The Worlds Most Beautiful Female Politicians,” clearly we’ve got a ways to go.

This week Madeleine M. Kunin, the first female governor of Vermont, wrote an insightful entry on The Huffington Post: “In Politics, What Works For A Man Still Does Not Work For A Woman.” She writes about her frustration that women are less inclined to take the risk of running for office.
To be political means to speak out, to risk being called "catty", or worse. I don't hear men worrying about whether they may be right or not. They enjoy the fight, whether it is with words or fists. Women still tend to shy away from controversy, to be uncomfortable with competition. Perhaps that is why only 17 percent of the members of Congress are female, and men are still largely running the country.
And Dahlia Lithwick on Slate challenged the merits of the Meghan McCain/Ann Coulter/Laura Ingraham media catfight. It started out on political substance and then spiraled into girls fighting over body image and age. She concludes:
But until we remember to argue on the merits, avoid the tired Mean Girls clich├ęs, and speak as though what we have to say matters to men as well as to the viewers of America's Next Top Model, we'll never be taken seriously, in the kitchen or anyplace else.
So, what's the take away? For me, all of these articles remind me to get tougher, braver and to not shy away from substantive political fights. And here's Banker Babe's take: "So women, start competing, and not just on clothes."

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