Palin brings gender back into dialogue


Article Last Updated: 09/03/2008 11:47:59 PM EDT

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped out of the presidential race in June, it seemed that gender wouldn't be an issue in the country's most important political contest. That all changed last week when Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. A mother with five children, no national political experience and an eclectic background, Palin had media, politicians and the American public all asking questions about her fitness as a potential vice president.

Her selection also revived a topic that many thought had died with Clinton's presidential bid — the treatment of and attitudes toward women running for top political offices.

"She brings gender right back into this campaign, when it seemed to be off the table," said Jennifer Sacco, assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

Palin, who accepted the nomination at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night, is only the second woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. The first was Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, who ran in 1984. Palin is the first Republican woman to run for the post. Sacco said Palin's addition changes the tenor of the whole race. Her colleague, Lisa Burns, Quinnipiac associate professor of media studies, agreed. "It's true that women candidates are judged differently than men," said Burns, also an expert on media coverage of first ladies.

One area where she's already been judged more harshly is on her personal life. Mere days after her selection, Palin's status as a mother of five — including an infant son with Down syndrome and a pregnant 17-year-old daughter — has raised some eyebrows.

"The question was, with five children, including an infant, when will she find time to run for vice president," Burns said. "When you have a male candidate, you don't get that question."

Sacco agreed. "It's really gotten very, very thorny," she said. "If she were a man, would people question what his priorities were?"

People also have preconceptions about which political issues women will be interested in, Burns said. "The assumption is that women are more well-versed on issues such as education, domestic affairs and child care," Burns said.

Male candidates, meanwhile, are seen as more competent on issues such as international affairs and the military.

When no female candidates are in the mix, Burns said, addressing the so-called "women's issues" will likely fall to the two potential first ladies. But, with Palin now involved, she'll likely be expected to tackle these topics.

Yet another question facing women who seek higher office is the image they present. That's a tricky line to walk, said Anson Smith, a history instructor at Housatonic Community College.

"A woman needs to be not too demure, or too much of a shrew," he said.

If the balance is off just a touch, Smith said, the female candidate risks appearing too weak for a position of power, or too volatile to appeal to a wide group of voters.

"Some men don't like strong, forceful, independent women," he said.

Some women don't like them either, said gender expert and author Susan Shapiro Barash, who lives in New York. Barash teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York and has written several books on gender issues, including "Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry" and "Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie."

Barash agreed with Smith that it's a problem for a woman to be seen as too strong. "It's a societal construct," she said. "Ambition and aggressiveness are held against us."

And not just by men, Barash said. "Ironically and distressingly" a lot of women are their gender's harshest critics, also punishing strong females for their achievements, she said.

However, not all prejudicial attitudes work against female candidates like Palin.

Burns said that some people, including Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, might be inclined to take it easy on Palin, for fear of being seen as sexist.

Or, as Burns said, "It's still hard for these candidates to hit a girl."

For instance, she said, Obama has so far refrained from challenging Palin's policies directly. Sacco echoed Burns' statement, and said it will be interesting to see if Biden also holds back during his upcoming vice presidential debate with Palin. "It'll be interesting to see if Biden will go after a female candidate," she said. "There might be some attempt not to go as negative because she's a woman."

Politicians aren't the only ones holding back, Burns said. So far, late night comedians have made few cracks about Palin's pregnant daughter. Burns said she's not sure Jay Leno, David Letterman and their ilk would be as gentle with the father of a pregnant teen.

"They're tip-toeing around this," she said. "They don't want to step over the line and be seen as sexist."

Comedians and political pundits were a bit harsher on Clinton when she was running for office, but Burns said the former first lady has been on the national stage for a while, and was considered fair game. Palin is relatively new to the scene, and no one wanted to appear to be attacking her.

However the political race turns out, there's one thing most experts can agree on — being a woman in the world of politics is a tough business.

"Whatever we think about Sarah Palin, we have to take our hat off to the fact that she's brave, and a pioneer," Barash said.