The Burdens of Female Politicians

In the nearly 30 years since Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to grace a major party's presidential ticket, female politicians became less of a novelty. Ferraro's selection as Walter Mondale's vice-presidential candidate in 1984 was replicated by Sarah Palin on the Republican side in 2008, the same year Hillary Clinton almost became the Democratic nominee for the top spot. Pundits declared 1992, when more female senators were elected than ever before, "the year of the woman." And 31 women have served as governors since Ella Grasso became the first woman who wasn't the wife or widow of a politician to be elected governor -- of Connecticut in 1974.

The world has changed since 1984, but not that much. We still haven't achieved the ultimate goal: parity in statehouses and Congress or sending a woman to the White House. Nor have we escaped the sexist prism through which women in politics are portrayed in the media and viewed by the public. But you do have women on the field, ranging from the exceedingly competent Hillary Clinton, who gets criticized for being too robotic, to the obviously incompetent Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who have ridden the coattails of the women's rights movement into office even as they undermine it at every turn.

Which puts feminists in a peculiar position. Of course neither Palin nor Bachmann is an obviously worse choice than all of their male peers (there is, after all, hardly a shortage of incompetent men in politics). But female office-holders bear a lot of weight -- and withstand an inordinate amount of scrutiny -- precisely because there are so few. And with so many expectations riding on them, they inevitably end up disappointing.

This was certainly the case with Ferraro. Until she was elevated to national prominence, Ferraro was an obscure Queens congresswoman. She became a prosecutor only after her children were older, and embraced the image of herself as a mother and homemaker. The Mondale campaign used that branding to preempt any criticism she might draw because of her gender. In addition, some of her policy positions -- she opposed school busing and supported school vouchers, for example -- put her at odds with the movement and with other progressive goals. But feminists were expected to vote for her anyway even though in fact, Ferraro was never as progressive as the party's selection of her was.

If many of us weren't ambivalent about Ferraro before the 2008 presidential race, we certainly soured on her after. After saying Obama wouldn't have been the front-runner for the Democratic nomination if he were a white man, she responded to criticism by saying, "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?"

But even more progressive female politicians tend to let everyone down. If Clinton was ferocious as a First Lady, she was decidedly less so as a candidate for president. She struggled to win over young, progressive female voters because she seemed too compromised, too conservative in many respects compared to Barack Obama. Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon wrote in her excellent recount of the role of women in the election Big Girls Don't Cry, about the struggles feminists had with Clinton, who as the first serious contender for president should have had a lock on the feminist vote but did not. Of the period during which Clinton was the front-runner in the 2008 Democratic race, she wrote, "One of the strangest things about this moment, for which Clinton would pay dearly, was that when her victory was presumptive many American feminists did not cheer her on, but shrugged their shoulders, curled their lips in distaste, or simply kept their distance."

Clinton -- whose tenure as secretary of state is both remarkable and mostly unremarked upon -- will likely leave politics, at least in an official capacity, at the end of Obama's first term. And the women we're left with after Clinton is even worse. The female candidates who rose to prominence in 2012 are primarily conservative and don't support policies like equal pay and access to abortion and reproductive health that are important to most women -- and prerequisites for anyone who identifies as a feminist.

Bachmann has thrown her hat into the ring from the right for 2012, but Palin, once thought a top contender, isn't running for certain. At first, Palin seemed uniquely able to balance sex appeal and careerism -- her dual roles as mother and politico -- in a way that few female politicians ever do. But the more the media focused on her, the more she looked ridiculous and was pushed out of the front-runner spot whether she deserved it any less than her male colleagues or not.

This is not to say that Palin should have been given a pass despite her obvious lack of knowledge of world affairs; it's to say that the presence of women like Bachmann and Palin in the spotlight isn't the problem per se. Most women would likely be thrilled to have a whole range of female candidates to choose from, but for that to happen, there need to be more of them. Only then will female candidates no longer have to shoulder the burden of representing an entire class, and only then will feminists not have to hang their hopes on a single candidate. Ferraro was an imperfect candidate -- and a disappointment to progressives in many ways -- but one has to hope that the burdens she had to bear will be buried with her.

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