Through the Lady's Glass

Event: [Women Running for Office Series at the Dole Institute][1] (Sun. Oct. 26)Unbelievably, this year's election all may actually be over soon.Besides being painfully drawn out, the 2008 election will no doubt be remembered as one of 'firsts' - the first with an African-American presidential nominee, the first with a woman seriously contending for the presidency, and the first with a female Republican VP nominee. Before the election season does finally come to an end, I wanted to talk to Lawrence's own female elected officials to get their takes while it's fresh..."This is a historic time that we should all be proud of," says Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who was for a time rumored to be on the shortlist for nomination as the Democratic VP nominee.The signal for a landmark season for women in American politics came when Hillary Clinton formally announced her bid for the presidency on Jan. 20, 2007. Seems like forever ago now, but it's been truly a long, long time in coming-women have already been at the helm of dozens of countries around the world, and have been for generations now, said Dr. Mary Banwart, of the Political Science department at KU.[![][2]][3]It's hard to say whether the U.S. has finally started to turn that corner. Banwart says her research shows American voters now think women are more competent and reliable on domestic issues such as healthcare and education than men. But perceptions of men remain stronger on issues involving foreign policy and security."In a lot of the research I've done, particularly among men, and especially younger men, one of the challenges women have faced is that male voters more commonly say that foreign officials will not respect an American leader if she is a female. After 9/11, that became a much more prominent response."Another persistent hurdle unique to women seeking public office is that they're routinely scrutinized on their appearance and demeanor. Lawrence Mayor Sue Hack says this is likely a product of the larger popular culture."Media has always given us a picture of how 'we' are supposed to look, dress, feel, etc," she says. "I don't think that political gender bias is any different." Recall the lengthy discussions of Clinton's cleavage or pantsuits-it's difficult to imagine a similar critique of Senators Obama or McCain for the size of their thighs or their choices of tie.Yet another challenge faced disproportionately by women candidates: their family. Coverage of female political aspirants or those who have achieved office typically involves much more discussion of that woman's marriage and family."Women still face that double-bind," says KU professor Banwart, "We want you to be career-driven and knowledgeable. We also want you to take care of your family."So what happens when two women face off against each other? That's the case this election in Kansas's 2nd District Congress race between incumbent Nancy Boyda and Republican candidate Lynn Jenkins."It's probably going to be labeled a catfight," says Valerie Taylor from the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, an advocacy group promoting moderate Republican candidates.Taylor jokingly compares it to two men fighting in a bar vs. two women fighting in a bar-typically men are quickly pulled apart, whereas crowds, often let the women continue to fight, fascinated by the spectacle.The candidates don't expect to have to confront that label, though. "The people of Kansas are more interested in what we have to say and what we bring to the table as candidates," Jenkins says.On this point, the candidates agree, Boyda says. "Kansans are ultimately very practical people. People have asked me before if I had an advantage or a disadvantage before because I was a woman (in my previous campaign against a man). It's just not an issue," she says. However, the same cannot really be said of the presidential race. Many who opposed Clinton in the primary have had a chance to look back critically, including Mayor Hack: "She was to be tough, but not too tough," Hack says, "Smart, but not too smart. She was criticized for showing emotion and also criticized for not showing emotion: As a woman, I was very proud of her courage and determination."Burdett Loomis, another KU Politic Science professor, says Clinton's portrayal in the media evinces some growing pains in the process of nearly nominating its first female candidate."Many in the media (and under the radar screen) used misogynistic terms to discuss her candidacy and her character," he says. "And a substantial part of this was derived from her fame/notoriety as Bill Clinton's wife." Enter Sarah Palin. By all accounts a wild card, Palin represents a different kind of candidate than Clinton. She represents the empowered working supermom, and she departs unapologetically from traditional feminist values like abortion rights.Like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm before her, Palin's beauty pageant past immediately surfaced and was examined glibly. As was did the pregnancy of her unwed, teenage daughter, Bristol. Following interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, Palin was widely criticized for being unprepared to be on the ballot. And McCain was criticized for a seemingly cynical choice-was Palin primarily selected because she is a woman or despite being a woman? "She was almost entirely chosen because she is a social conservative woman," notes Dr. Loomis, "And her "hockey mom" style either demonstrates how far women have come or essentially confounds many of the gains of feminism."There is a practical side, too, to being a mother and holding office. Remarks Nancy Boyda, "It wasn't planned at all, but I started running in the fall after my youngest had graduated from high school. I personally couldn't have done it with kids, but I see many that do," she says. "There are many women in Congress who have young children, and there are many men who have young children."In no previous election has the electorate and the ever-growing pundit class enjoyed as many different kinds of women to examine and potentially elect to represent them. It seems clear by most accounts, however, that many of the ways that the public perceives women in public office, if unconsciously, could use more of an overhaul than the candidates could accomplish on their own. 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