Outlook: Five myths about female candidates

Nov 01, 2010

Rebecca Traister, senior writer for Salon.com, will be online Monday, Nov. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article titled 'Five myths about female candidates.'

Hi everyone, this is Rebecca Traister, and I'll be taking your questions for an hour or so here. Please feel free to ask me anything -- about this weekend's 5 myths piece, about this year's midterms, about feminism, about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton or anything at all you're curious about. Looking forward to chatting!

Five myths about female candidates

I assume from your writing that you are a Democrat. Are there ANY Republican women for which you have any respect? Or do you resent the fact that some women have wandered off your reservation and haven't kept in their proper places?

You assume correctly that I am a Democrat. But yes, there are lots of Republican women for whom I have respect, several of whom I name in the Five Myths piece. For example, I note the unfairness of the way in which women have been labeled extra-dumb and extra-extreme this cycle by pointing out that far more nimble candidates, including Nikki Haley, Carly Fiorina, Susana Martinez and Meg Whitman, should be furious. That doesn't mean I agree with their politics. But I also don't agree with Sarah Palin's politics, yet have written extensively (in my book and elsewhere) about the kind of social progress she's been a major part of. There's an extensive history of conservative women's leadership, and I think immediately of Margaret Chase Smith as an example of it. As I write in the Five Myth piece, progress for women in politics means more women on both sides of the aisle. We need women to vote for and to vote against, whether we're Democrats or Republicans.

When will we get to a point where our press corps starts to really ask candidates to really address the issues of working parents? I feel like we really lost out at a crucial moment with Sarah Palin talking about being a mother of five and speaking nothing but platitudes about being a working mom. Not one person - I'm looking at you Katie Couric - ever asked her, "so how exactly did YOU manage to work, nurse babies, raise children...what policies do you think need to be in place for mothers to raise healthy children"? Most women in higher office can afford nannies, etc. When will we ever have a frank discussion about the needs of working parents, and how to we get our candidates to address this?

I wish I knew the answer to the question of "when" we would hear questions and answers on this topic. I think the only chance we have of getting to that place is seeing more mothers -- like Palin, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Nikki Haley and Krystal Ball -- running for office. Of course the answer to the question involves not only candidates who can afford nannies, but also those who have access to good, cheaper daycare (an issue that of course raises questions about policy and funding), those who have stay-at-home partners (part of what made Palin's path a possibility was the sharing of domestic labor with her husband Todd). You're correct that we need to address these issues head on, so that we can get past the feel good mom-happy rhetoric and explore the kinds of social and policy changes that need to be put into action before more mothers can run for office. But it's a chicken and the egg situation -- it's only the presence of mothers on campaign trails (which we are seeing in greater numbers) that is going to start forcing the question.

I live in Pennsylvania, where our state legislature  always has the fewest percent of female legislators among all states. The political scientists claim it is because we have a full-time professional legislature and the professional female politicians tend to enter politics later in life, thus providing men overall with better chances at filling legislative offices. Do you accept this theory?

Hi! I actually tried to answer this question first, but my answer got lost in the technology mists, so am trying again. I am from Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) and am all too familiar with the dearth of female representation in the state.

One thing worth noting is that in many cases, it is east coast states like Pa, Mass, and NY (pre-Clinton and now Gillibrand) -- the ones we think of as urban, liberal, etc. -- that have the hardest time putting women in office on local, state and federal levels. Places like Alaska, Texas, Arizona have FAR better records, which speaks to a lot of factors and a lot of history, but which also highlights the ongoing tensions between progressivism and feminism, something I write a lot about in my book.

But the heart of your question, about the theory that it's a full-time legislative structure that prevents women from coming into the process early in their careers,  speaks to the question I answered above -- that one of the crucial pieces of progress we need to implement is the acceptance of women who can simltaneously mother and govern (thanks to equal partnerships, daycare, stay-at-home partners, etc..) something that we are JUST getting used to seeing on the political landscape. I have written about the thrill I got -- despite my political disagreement with nearly every word that came out of her mouth -- upon seeing Sarah Palin conclude a vice-presidential debate and reach for her newborn. This was a history-making moment in America, and in politics. Because the fact is that whatever the reasons that her son was on stage that night, seeing a vice-presidential candidate who also was mother to a newborn child meant that that is something we will be able to see again in the future. And that opens up doors to millions of women. that doesn't mean that walking through it will be easy -- that there won't still be questions about whether or not they're good or capable mothers. But being able to conceive of or visualize a candidate/elected official who happens to be a mother to young children is absolutely groundbreaking, and gets us at least one step closer to a world in which it's not so different from a candidate/elected official who happens to be a father to young children.

You noted that "approval ratings for GOP candidates such as O'Donnell, Angle and Michele Bachmann are higher among men than women" but then you suggested that this indicates "little gender-based allegiance." I wonder if the difference is even greater among only Republican voters. Two years ago, I noticed an irony where Palin's strongest supporters seemed to be male religious conservatives with very traditionalist views of gender roles. This pattern has continued with O'Donnell, Angle and Bachmann. Obviously all four women are themselves religious conservatives, but that alone probably doesn't explain why they get more support from men than from women. I suspect there's more involved here than simply the longstanding pattern of more women voting Democratic. Palin and O'Donnell in particular describe themselves as feminists while sometimes opposing feminist principles. O'Donnell once stated that women should submit to their husbands, while the "mama grizzly" concept that Palin and Angle endorse carries the ugly connotation that being a mother is a necessary part of being a woman. And the language directed at Pelosi is from the longstanding tradition of bashing female Democratic politicians as unfeminine. My theory is that many male religious conservatives perceive the Palins and O'Donnells as confirming their views about gender roles, while allowing themselves to believe that they're not sexists because they support women candidates. Would you agree?

"My theory is that many male religious conservatives perceive the Palins and O'Donnells as confirming their views about gender roles, while allowing themselves to believe that they're not sexists because they support women candidates. Would you agree?" Yes! I do agree that that is a HUGE and important part of the appeal to the predominantly male supporters of candidates like Palin, Angle and Bachmann -- that the policy they push actually upholds old power structures  that are comfortable to conservative men. The ad exec Donny Deutsch once called Sarah Palin "the feminist idea" because she wore skirts -- he said "I want her watching my kids, I want her laying next to me in bed." So that's a perfect example of a man proudly using the word "feminist" -- thereby sounding progressive -- but actually celebrating the feminist for being very traditionally maternal and feminine. What I write about that in Big Girls Don't Cry is that Palin represented "a form of female power that was utterly digestible to those who had no intellectual or political use for actual women: feminism without the feminists."

But that said, I think it's important to note that that's not the whole story. First of all, it is true that the gender difference does mirror the gender gap between parties, regardless of the gender of the candidates in question. But also, it's important, when talking about the men who support the conservative women, to not forget that though they may be fewer in number, there ARE women who support them vociferously, wholeheartedly, fiercely -- and for reasons having to do with feminism, of the Title IX, breaking-into-the-boys-club variety. Palin's candidacy really inspired a lot of conservative women to want to stick their own flag in the feminist legacy -- a legacy of which they are indeed proud inheritors and from which they benefit and to which they contribute. I have very strong feelings about the ways in which a lot of conservative policy -- from reproductive rights to labor policy and health care -- works in opposition to the furthered equality of women, but that doesn't mean that the women who support that policy are barred from the conversation about feminism.

Also, I would like to point out with regard to Palin that while she was initially presented to us as a very comfortable version of femininity, she has in the years she's been on the political stage absolutely gone her own way, defying conventional wisdom and those in her own party, behaving in utterly uncoached, unpredictable ways, and that is NOT the way in whcih we expect women to behave publicly or politically.

I am curious whether you have studied, or anybody has, correlations in voting between gender, class, and race? How do, for example, women of Latin American, Asian or African-American origin vote? Thank you for your opinion.

Yes, there are many who study voting patterns with regard to gender, race and class, offering a much more nuanced picture than I am able to (I'm not a pollster or a statistician) in a chat. But there are a lot of very good resources out there (you can start by searching "voting patterns broken down by race, gender, class" and go from there).

Well, her husband really was the one home taking care of the kids. Why is it so important to ask women 'how they do it' and not ask the male candidates? Therein lies so many issues, I can't even begin. I mean, really - she does it the same way the rest of us do it/did it. Why is it not okay not to ask Ms. Palin but no one asks anyone else - like GW bush or Obama or whoever? I don't recall anyone asking Obama that question, and he and his wife both worked.

It is important to ask the questions, because the expectation throughout history has been that women stay home or do the lions share of the domectic and childrearing work, no matter whether they work or not (see Arlie Hochschild's Second Shift), having an impact on their professional and earning potential. This has to change if we are to get closer to gender parity in politics, and so examining how it is changing (labor policy, more equal partnerships, daycare, changed social expectations) is crucial to getting there.

I've been appalled at the coverage of Kelly Ayotte here in N.H., not because it's been negative but because it's been unchallenging. I don't know what to think about Hodes--our local newspaper took the unusual step this morning of saying that they couldn't endorse a candidate for U.S. Senate because they're both so terrible--but he has had almost no media attention. I have the distinct impression that her considerable physical assets make her more interesting to the largely male local media. I hope I'm being excessively cynical, but, other than the newspaper's disdainful comments today, I have not seen her being questioned or "vetted" in the way I think a comparable male candidate would be.

A lot of people talk about the "babe factor" when it comes to women in politics, which is worth examining, but which I don't think always bears out -- see, for example, a recent dearth of national attention to Nikki Haley in South Carolina. I'm not in NH so can't speak to what the coverage has been like, but I would say that the pattern nationally has been a kind of fetishization of the female candidates in 2010 (especially the conservative ones) so that you'd think they are the only women running (and from what you say, the only candidates running period!)

Christine O'Donnell's reminds me of perennial conservative Republican placeholder candidate Alan Keyes on steroids supplied by Tea Party enablers. O'Donnell and Keyes both garner publicity, contributions and primary victories by espousing family values, conservative positions and political slogans, but both cannot win a general election. Other than gender and O'Donnell often being the first to laugh at her own jokes (as if to plead for sympathy), the main distinction between O'Donnell and Keyes is the existence of the Tea Party Movement which makes available to her substantially more money for her to spend on the campaign -- or not. Will O'Donnell continue to garner politician headlines if as predicted she loses badly?

If O'Donnell loses badly, I don't THINK that she'll continue to garner headlines, but then again, I thought Sarah Palin would be out of political consideration after quitting her job as governor partway through her first term, and more than two years later, she's still grabbing headlines. So predictions are tough to make, but it seems to me that O'Donnell is a perennial candidate who has surfed a wave of interest/obsession with insurgent candidates, especially female ones who make public missteps, and that if she loses, we won't hear a lot about her for a while.

What is the truth about female candidate fundraising? Do we raise less per seat per cycle? Do we give less than men when we give? If you're not Meg Whitman, what can be done to improve fundraising to expand media and messaging? Thank you ~ EXCELLENT article today, which I've Facebooked and Tweeted. Best ~ Paloma

Oh this is such a crucial question, I wish I had time to answer in depth! Again, there are extensive resources for this -- women have in recent years enjoyed a lot more political giving power, and have in some exceptional cases been the beneficiaries of terrific financial support (compare Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency to Pat Schoeder's in 1987, when she had to drop out because of a lack of money -- but of course that was a truly exceptional situation, and Hillary's campaign debt remained HUGE at the end). More broadly, women do suffer from a lack of financial support, an inability to attract media or fundraising dollars. For that matter, many female candidates don't get the financial backing of their party (check out this depressing piece from the Huffington Post from last week: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/27/womens-rights-groups-prog_n_774606.html) In terms of what can be done -- well, raising the profiles and raising awareness of your local female candidates, grass-roots organizing, supporting organizations that support female candidates (WCF, EMILY's List, etc). Again, I'm a big believer in the benefit of seeing more high profile women run high profile races -- the more we get used to having women as part of the political process, the more those women will be taken seriously by political fundraisers and donors.

If this is 'so crucial' to know - then start asking the male candidates the same questions. If you're ONLY going to ask women candidates 'how they do it' then that in itself is sexist isn't it? Asking certain questions of only men or only women...well, I don't see how that makes things *better*.

This is of course true. I didn't mean to say that I was advocating for only women to be asked these questions. But what is true is that for men, there has always been a standard answer -- they had wives. Because that has been the norm, it's why it goes unquestioned. Frankly, even in cases like the Obamas, in which both partners worked, the answer remained the same: Michelle took care of the kids (see again Arlie Hochschild's Second Shift) while he went to Springfield -- Barack has written about this, and written about her frustrations with the situation, in his memoirs. So I don't mean to suggest that we don't ask the question of men -- in fact, answering it sheds a hell of a lot of light on the issue of why there have been so few women in politics -- just to suggest that the reason we don't is because in most cases, people assume they know the answer.


Women's Rights Groups, Progressives Grow Disgruntled With DCCC Priorities

And I love it. It reflects a lot of my experiences during the 2008 election, and it's a great look at the underlying social issues in that election-- and certainly not limited to sex. Fantastic read.

Thank you so much for saying so! I'm glad you're enjoying the book, and I appreciate your coming to the chat to say so. We are living through an amazing, complicated, exciting time in American social and political history, with regard to gender and race and sexuality and much else. Trying to sort through the ways we feel about it isn't always easy, but it's important to keep trying to make sense of it all.

Thanks everyone for participating in the conversation today. I'm signing off now, it's been a lot of fun. Cheers, Rebecca

In This Chat
Rebecca Traister
Rebecca Traister is a writer for Salon.com and is the author of 'Big Girls Don't Cry,' about how the 2008 election brought issues concerning women, power and sexism to the fore.
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