Sex and Sensibility

Having attended a women's college and spent half of my professional life affiliated with a female institution, I know better than to believe that women are naturally more sharing, caring, and cooperative than men, although in general, they may be more polite. I'm not denying the existence of distinct masculine and feminine cultural styles or different male and female perspectives based largely on experience. I'm simply asserting what was once recognized as a basic tenet of liberal feminism: sex is no predictor of character or moral sensibility.

Sex is a poor predictor of ideology as well. The female solidarity sometimes forged by women's common experiences doesn't always overcome demo graphic differences among women, not to mention their differences in talent and temperament. Considering the chasm between members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the women of the Christian Coalition, I never trust popular pronouncements about a gender gap between women and men.

So while I look forward to the day when women have equal access to high elective and appointive offices, when sex is not an obstacle to political achievement, I have never considered sex a reliable signal of political preferences. It's true that studies of women in state legislatures have suggested that they are apt to pay more attention than men to issues such as child care and family leave and that they tend to be more responsive to demands for women's rights. But a profile of the average female legislator has little relevance in any particular election. We evaluate candidates as individuals, on the basis of their own political records and ideas, not on the basis of the voting records of their demographic group.

At least, in an ideal world, we'd evaluate candidates as individuals. In fact, voters have always been influenced by ethnic, racial, or sexual biases, and candidates appeal to demographically defined voting blocs—while professing disdain for discriminatory voting. Even Elizabeth Dole, who sometimes seemed to be running for role model instead of president, periodically acknowledged that people shouldn't vote for her simply because of her sex.

But while advocates for female candidates routinely acknowledge that sex should not be a qualification for office, they expect and encourage female voters to put more trust in female candidates and feel better represented by them. (Minority candidates often make similar appeals to minority voters.) Women feel more "comfortable" with candidates who "look like them," the advocates say approvingly. Female politicians can be relied upon to "get it."

This double-talk about whether sex matters is exasperating and does seem rather unprincipled: you can hardly object when female candidates are disadvantaged by negative gender stereotypes if you're in the business of exploiting the positive ones. Any woman running for office who suggests that, by virtue of her sex, she's particularly adept at forging consensus has waived the right to complain when reporters focus on her fashion sense.


The inconsistent messages often generated by women's campaigns, however, are likely to reflect genuine confusion about sex and gender, rather than political hypocrisy. Feminism has always been beset with cognitive dissonance: nineteenth-century suffragists fought to expand the rights due to them regardless of sex, while arguing that armed with feminine virtues, female voters and officeholders would purify public life. Similar dissonance is evident among some professional feminists today. Consider the White House Project, co-founded by Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation.

Launched in 1998 by a group of feminists, including Gloria Steinem, the White House Project is officially a public education effort with the vague but ambitious aim of "changing the climate of American politics" in order to "elect a woman president within the next decade." So far, its primary initiative has been the conduct of a mock presidential election featuring only female candidates. Nearly one million ballots were reportedly distributed—on the Inter net, in magazines, in shopping malls, and on college campuses—and some 100,000 ballots were cast. The results were hardly surprising: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Dole were among the top five vote-getters.

Why were liberal feminists effectively aiding the recently aborted candidacy of Elizabeth Dole? The White House Project is painstakingly nonpartisan. It is based both on a reasoned appeal for equal access and an emotional nineteenth- century assumption that women are endowed with virtues that will ennoble public life: "Women office holders are leading voices for more accountable and responsible government," the White House Project ballot asserts nonsensically.

Ms. Foundation President Marie Wilson (who also serves as president of the White House Project) eschews gender stereotypes in conversation and is surely aware of the differences among women like, say, Gloria Steinem and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (who was on the mock ballot). But allusions to female solidarity and virtue underlie every fundraising appeal I've witnessed for this project. A series of taped interviews with international female leaders shown to prospective donors concludes with a tribute to the feminine graces from former Iceland President Vigdis Finnbogadottir, which might make Margaret Thatcher gag. "Men have historically governed without taking women into consideration; women would always take men into consideration," Finnbogadottir asserts confidently. "That's the difference. Don't you agree?"

Is the White House Project good for women? I suspect it's good for some women and not others. Maybe young girls, future women of America, feel inspired by it, as Marie Wilson hopes. Maybe some adult women feel "validated" by it. But actual as opposed to virtual female candidates who practice real partisan politics are apt to scoff at a $3-million campaign that merely talks about electing women—any women, of no particular party or ideology. ("If they want more women in public office, why don't they contribute money to my campaign?" one woman engaged in a tough statewide race remarked to me.)

You can make a case for nonpartisan civic education organizations like the League of Women Voters. But, unlike the league, the White House Project has a particular political agenda: electing a female president by 2008. It's an agenda that makes little sense precisely because it is nonpartisan and disregards ideology—or stupidly assumes that ideology is ultimately dictated by sex and that all women are liberal feminists at heart. The White House Project is either naïve or dishonest. Either Marie Wilson and her colleagues actually believe that any female president will do, or their non partisanship is merely a pose, and they intend their $3-million project to facilitate the election of a feminist president.


Partisan politics are frustrating, I admit, with centrist Democratic and Republican candidates parroting each other's views. In other words, what partisan politics lacks today is genuine partisanship. Gender cannot substitute for it, especially if you're concerned with issues other than day care, elder care, and reproductive choice. I pay particular attention to civil liberties and criminal justice, for example, and have never found males any less attentive than females to these concerns. In fact there is an antilibertarian strain in popular feminism that encourages censorship and is generally hostile to the due-process rights of men accused of sexual misconduct.

Gender politics will not advance many progressive causes, not even feminism, especially when the Republican Party is endeavoring to promote women. And gender stereotypes are treacherous. Assumptions about female character and sensibilities follow inexorably from our notions of female sexuality from which we draw our preoccupation with female beauty.

It is appalling but not entirely surprising to see the attention that continues to be paid to Hillary Clinton's physical appearance. A recent edition of Larry King Live focusing on Clinton's New York Senate race included a critique of her by CNN style editor Elsa Klensch. Klensch was generally supportive of Clinton's campaign, stressing that "every woman I know is for her. That smile is a great visual." She praised Clinton for disguising her figure flaws—but didn't hesitate to point them out: "She has a bad figure. That's one of her problems. She's bottom heavy, and her legs are short." Klensch's co-panelist, divorce lawyer and Giuliani partisan Raoul Felder, added that Clinton was "fat" and wondered, "If your legs are too short, how do you evolve?"

Listening to this discussion was like time traveling back to the seventh grade; grown-ups are not supposed to engage in such petty cruelties. Female candidates, however, remain vulnerable to them. So it was refreshing to see Republican Senator Bob Smith's figure recently described in The New York Times as "the opposite of an hourglass, expanding rather than contracting in the middle." But such descriptions of male candidates are rare, and Smith's homeliness is treated as a virtue: it makes him seem like a regular "small-town American" and helps him "stand out as an un-smooth nonlawyer in Congress."

Should we publicly mock the physical imperfections of male candidates? Maybe criticizing Giuliani's comb-over would be unworthy of us, but treating men with the disrespect traditionally afforded women is a much more honest and effective strategy against sexism than pieties about the gentler sex.

"Hire him. He's got great legs," the NOW ad used to say. That's not gender politics. It's equal rights feminism—an appeal to the golden rule.

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