Who Are Our Biggest Opponents When it Comes to Running for Office?

Image courtesy Joyce Culver/92Y

Who’s getting in our way when it comes to women in elective office? Ourselves, in many cases.

Whether it be doubting that we can win, not wanting to leave our young children at home in the care of others while we’re on the campaign trail or in office, or whether we just don’t think we have what it takes – women are often their own biggest critics.

It’s in our nature to sow feelings of self-doubt, despite the fact that of all people, WE should know better. WE should know that not only can we run for office – and win – but we can literally change history by adding that feminine touch to hot-button policy item and issues that matter most to our communities. After all, don’t most of us hold down demanding jobs while raising kids, making sure school projects and homework are done, keeping the house from looking like a tornado tore through it, attending PTA meetings and soccer practice, and volunteering in our communities, and maintaining family finances?

During an recent event in New York City presented by 92Y and Glamour Magazine, women helping to make inroads in this arena challenged other women to embrace their ambition and not be dissuaded by the critics.

“If you just look at the numbers, it’s not that encouraging, but it IS encouraging … I can tell you, from the feel and the atmosphere and response, there is endless potential for women to be elected in New York City and New York State, in my opinion,” said New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “I don’t see at all, any evidence, that gender holds us back. I think what holds us back is ourselves. We decide what we can’t do. We decide what we can’t risk.”

What makes us not take that risk? A 2011 American University study notes that men are 60 percent more likely than women to think of themselves as “very qualified” to run for office, whereas women are more than twice as likely as men to rate themselves as “not at all qualified.” Plus, we’re not the gender amped up to jump into the ring and draw blood.  Being a target of media scrutiny and criticism isn’t exactly a turn-on to many women.

One of the difficult decisions to make is to “be that target” for people’s criticism, said Amy Holmes, news anchor for GBTV’s Real News at the Blaze, former CNN contributor and speechwriter for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. “For women, I think that can be a little more difficult decision than it can for men.”

Men like to put “scalps up on their wall” and enjoy the competition, she added, but “to be a woman in public life certainly is not easy – you have to have a very thick skin and be prepared.”

Sandra Fluke is a woman who has such a thick skin. After being called some of the worst names in the book by Rush Limbaugh for her statements on female contraception and health care – something moderator Chelsea Clinton said she could empathize with, since, at the age of 13, Limbaugh referred to the former First Daughter as the Clinton “dog” – Fluke’s response was grace under fire.  Why? She didn’t want the whole nasty ordeal to discourage other women from speaking out.

“One of the things I was really concerned about when this sort of verbal attacks began was, what kind of message this was going to send to very young women – to pre-teens and very young girls,” Fluke said.  “I wanted to be an example of someone who did not go away as a result and talked about how it was wrong. I wanted to talk about how it was an attempt to silence women because I wanted to have young women understand it as that. I really hope, still, that it will be an empowering moment in some strange way for young women to say ‘I realize this is a risk but I realize I need to respond to it.’”

Whether you agree with Fluke or not on her specific views on health insurance and contraception, can one argue with the premise that more women need to be encouraged to speak out on the very issues that are important to them and their families, their communities?

We Need to ‘Unpack the Baggage’ of 2008

Reflecting on the treatment of women in politics in the recent past may be a necessary evil in order to move forward.

Nicolle Wallace, a Republican mom who is the former communications chief for President George W. Bush and served as the McCain-Palin campaign senior advisor in 2008, said the treatment of women candidates like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the 2008 election was so painful for her, she took to writing fictional books with powerful women at the center of the story lines.

“There were things said about women … that make men blush when you walk into a newsroom,” she said. Both Republicans and Democrats approached her after the election to voice their concern about the abhorrent treatment of those women – and others, such as Michelle Obama – that election year by the media, their own party, and political opponents.

“I think the reality is, we go back and unpack and relitigate what happened four years ago” before we can really move forward, Wallace said. “We are perfectly capable of pulling ourselves up – we do it every day, no matter what our jobs are,” she added. But “we have to acknowledge that something traumatic happened – not just to a handful of women, to the party, but to the country.”

Wallace, of course, was referring to how many Clinton supporters and women proposed boycotts of cable news networks in 2008 and charged the media with sexism in their coverage of her campaign.  That rallying cry gained supporters the likes of Katie Couric and Howard Dean.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews called Clinton a “she-devil” who only got as far as she did in politics because her husband “messed around.” Tucker Carlson, also on MSNBC, said, “when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” The year before, a Washington Post fashion writer penned an entire story on Hillary’s cleavage, and she was referred to as “b-tch” at John McCain rallies.

As for Sarah Palin, whether you like her politics or not, questions surrounding whether she really was the one who gave birth to her youngest son, how she could possibly be vice president while caring for a baby with Down syndrome, the focus on what RNC money was spent on clothes, etc., served as endless fodder for the media cycle.

Wallace said the McCain-Palin campaign was “flabbergasted” in 2008 when solid, reliable reporters who never previously displayed bias wanted “serious answers” to questions like how she could be a mother and vice president at the same time. When has a man EVER been asked that question?

But women also need to stop beating each other up. We go into Mamma Bear mode when it comes to our kids; perhaps that same sentiment kicks in when we’re competing with other women, whether it be in politics, business, or another industry.

I’ve talked to people in the business world who cite something like “The Queen Bee” syndrome as to why women tear each other down – where the female tries to preserve her power by not promoting younger women, ad otherwise undermining their attempts to climb the corporate latter. After all, the queen had to work hard to get to where she was, right? In the venture capital world, studies have shown that although trends of “homophily” exist – where women tend to ask other women investors for money (the small number of women in that community, that is), and men tend to ask men – women had a slightly better chance of getting funding from male investors than they did from female investors.

“Women don’t get behind women just because they’re women,” Wallace said. “There is no one more vicious on their own than conservative women versus conservative women – it’s our own form of domestic violence.” That could be because there are so fewer conservative women than non-conservative women. Maintaining that “queen bee” position is even more important when you’re a big fish in a small pond.

Can We Really ‘Just Do It?”

Studies have shown that women are more likely to run for office because they were encouraged – or pushed hard – than men.

“Men wake up in the morning and decide to run for president – women need to be asked. And they need to be asked on average seven times,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. “It’s not necessarily natural for us to say ‘yes’ right away because we want to think about it.”

As much as some of us may love the idea of running for office, there are more issues involved than just getting our names on the ballot. We have to make sure someone else can help raise the kids and pack their lunches, take care of the house and extended family that may need tending to, make dentist and doctor appointments, and keep our family lives otherwise running smoothly.  And if we DO run, and DO win, a very different burden exists for the woman who holds office than that of a man.

A woman’s day does not end once she leaves the office. After often putting in a 12-hour or more workday, she often returns home to help kids with homework, make Halloween costumes, bake cookies or cupcakes for school, or cleaning the house. We try to rush home after work just to get a glimpse of our children before they go to bed, and let them crawl into our own beds at night because we feel guilty at not spending enough time with them.

“There is still a burden women place on themselves to do it all,” Wallace said. “It is not just structurally more challenging, but it is morally different for a woman who leaves her kids in the hands of others, who leaves the household in the hands of others.”

But Fluke noted that there are “structural barriers” like affordable childcare that still prevent many women from running – not to mention access to affordable contraception for many underprivileged women to put them more in control of their reproductive lives.

“We have to think about how our public policies create these barriers for women. Let’s have more support for childcare that allows women to have these careers,” she said.

We need more women in politics not just because they are underrepresented, but because a female’s voice is necessary to elevate issues of importance and to help forge more consensus than political bickering. And we’re not just talking about women’s health or education, but issues that include homeland security and tax reform, among others. Women do not have a “gyno-centric view” on issues,” Holmes said. “We care about a lot of things.”

Schriock added: “We have to ask each other to get involved and do this because when it does happen, we know that the policies that come out when there’s more women involved, are better for our communities and our families.”

Guest contributor Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, PoliticsDaily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at @lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.

  • I just published a post on my blog entitled “…And What If Women Ruled The World.” I think that we need more women in power. No, correct that. We need a majority of women in power. Not just in political positions, but in the business world as well.

    I truly believe that our world would be in better shape.

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