Call her strong

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It was an amazing discussion. Articulate, passionate, insightful. Most of the women who gathered were strangers to each other. I wish you could’ve been there.

The setting: the January 4, 2008, Women’s Press First Friday Salon. The topic: Why are some people still not ready to elect women? Why are women held to a higher standard when running for office?

Our next First Friday Salon will be held at the Women’s Press, 771 Raymond Ave., St. Paul, on Feb. 1 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. We’ll be talking about Minnesota’s precinct caucuses. Whether you’re an old hand or have never been to one, come and be part of the discussion. I don’t think you’ll regret spending an hour with us.

“We as a nation have an internalized mistrust of women as leaders,” one woman said. There wasn’t total agreement on this point, nor should there have been; the combination of views was part of what made the discussion so thought-provoking. One woman who had had many conversations about electing women concluded, “I think there are a lot of people [including older white men] who are ready to elect women.”

One thing the group agreed about-to a woman-was that women politicians are held to different standards than their male counterparts. The late Benazir Bhutto is an example. Rather than discussing the complexity of the role she filled, the media often referred to her as a “deeply polarizing figure.” This powerful woman lived a complex life, yet they were too fond of dwelling on her supposed fondness for jewelry and shoes.

This sort of feminization is used to trivialize powerful women. Remember the media’s focus on Hillary Clinton’s headbands when her husband was running for president? The criticism of her appearance ramped up when she was a Senate candidate, and reached fever pitch when she began her presidential campaign. I’m surprised that her loss in the Iowa caucuses wasn’t tied to a run in her stocking or an unflattering outfit.

This sort of belittling isn’t limited to “liberal” women politicians. In an Oct., 2006 story, City Pages called Michelle Bachmann, then a candidate for Congress (she’s since been elected), “perhaps the most polarizing figure in state politics.” In the same story, they referred to her appearance with George W. Bush as “her coming-out party on the national stage” and her attire as “proud-to-be-a-lady pink suit with matching gloves and pearl accessories.” (No mention of what the president was wearing.)

If you’re a regular reader of this column or even of this paper, you likely know that I’m no Bachmann supporter. But characterizing a powerful woman this way bothers me. We all need to speak up and say that it isn’t right. It’s fine for pundits and individuals to disagree with Michelle Bachmann’s, Benazir Bhutto’s, or Hillary Clinton’s politics. Question their qualifications. But don’t dwell on her jewelry, the color of her suits, or how much she spends on her shoes. Any time a female politician is treated this way, it diminishes all women-not just political leaders, but women in nontraditional careers, college students, business women, (fill in the blank). Quite simply, it makes it harder for women in any role-or girls who aspire to them-to be taken seriously.

Aside from critiques of their appearance, one thing Bhutto, Bachmann and Clinton have in common: The mainstream media is as fond of using the phrase “deeply polarizing” to describe them. How is Hillary Clinton more polarizing than George W. Bush? Benazir Bhutto more polarizing than Pervez Musharraf? My opinion is that “polarizing,” when used to describe powerful women, is a code word for “strong.” And there, I think, is the rub. What happens when a woman steps into a traditionally male leadership role? Do we believe that it’s OK-even expected-for male politicians to be strong, powerful and assertive, but that female politicians need to be warm, sympathetic and emotional?

This complex, nuanced topic isn’t one I can wrap up in a neat and tidy bundle and lay at the feet of readers. But I hope you’ll be part of this and other conversations we’re having.

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