Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Tale of Two Women

What an odd coincidence it is that the New York Times and the Washington Post both decided to have articles on female politicians this morning, the Times on Nancy Pelosi and the Post on Hillary Clinton. Hecate has an interesting take on this tale of two women as girls trying to get into the boys' treehouse, and there's some of that going on for sure.

But other interesting things are also going on. For example, the number of powerful women in American politics is miniscule. Rwanda has more women in its parliament than we do in ours, and so do most other industrialized countries. It's very hard to get women elected in a two-party system, for reasons that deserve a separate post. But articles like these two appearing on the same day tend to give us the impression that the political life in America is feminized. This is the great bugbear of the wingnuts: they keep sniffing the political air for perfume and checking that their precious bodily fluids are not being appropriated by senators in skirts. Any number of women in politics would be too many for the religious wingnuts, at least after Gilead has been instituted, but even the nonreligious followers of politics tend to assume that there are many more women in power than is actually the case.

One reason for this paradox is the fact that the few powerful women we have are easy to recognize by name and to remember, whereas the many, many powerful men are not so easily named and caricatured. This is not only a problem in the field of politics but is equally apparent in the media. Perhaps this is what the main benefits of tokens are to those in power: they make the underrepresented group look more numerous by the way they stick out. The red power suits of female senators draw our attention and we forget to count the vastly larger number of male senators in blue suits. The latter become background.

What about the articles on Pelosi and Clinton themselves? In most ways they are the usual journalistic stuff on politicians, trying to find stuff to criticize and stuff not to criticize, but there is an underlying vein of...discomfort. Consider this quote about Nancy Pelosi's faults as a public speaker:

Republicans hope to block her ascent by preventing Democrats from picking up the 15 seats they need to take control of the House. Republican strategists say they are eager to conduct a direct assault on Ms. Pelosi, focusing on what they believe are her vulnerabilities.

Ms. Pelosi can struggle at times to give the air of the gravitas that powerful women like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice do, both friends and adversaries say. She can appear tentative and overscripted in interviews, with a tight smile and large, expressive eyes than can leave an impression of nervousness.

Can we state any more clearly that the writer doesn't think Pelosi can lead, that she is not a "powerful woman"? The bolding, by the way, is mine.

What, then, does the Washington Post article say about the powerful Hillary Rodham Clinton? This, for example:

Clinton's roles as senator, first lady, governor's wife, lawyer and children's advocate have given her a depth of experience that few national politicians can match, but she is still trying to demonstrate whether these yielded a coherent governing philosophy. For now, she is defined by a combination of celebrity and caution that strategists say leaves her more vulnerable than most politicians to charges that she is motivated more by personal ambition and tactical maneuver than by a clear philosophy.

Once again, it's me doing the bolding. I found the adjective "vulnerable" interesting, though I must do more research to find if it's used equally often in descriptions of male politicians.

Male politicians are seldom accused of being in the game for the sake of personal ambition. It's seen as a natural aspect of what drives them into the power struggles of politics: the desire for power to influence events and the desire to be remembered with admiration. But should Hillary Clinton be affected by these same emotions? Gasp! That would be unfeminine.

Here we have the wingnutshell of how women in politics can never do the right thing. If they are tentative and careful in what they say they are not powerful enough. If they are abrupt and strong in what they say they are fueled by personal ambition. There is no third way, just as there is no ladder to the boys' treehouse.