As Women Rise in Politics, Fault Lines Change

CBS/AP
CBS/AP

America seems to be getting used to its female politicians.

Consider this week's victories by Republican women: Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman won the GOP's Senate and gubernatorial nominations in California; in South Carolina, Nikki Haley dominated her male opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary; and in Nevada, the GOP Senate nomination went to Sharron Angle, whose closest rival was also a woman. 

And then there's Sarah Palin, who may not have run for office, but whose endorsement, it has become increasingly clear, carries serious weight.

Notably, most of these female politicians did not make much of an issue of their gender - and neither, it's worth noting, did their opponents.

When Hillary Clinton ran for Senate in 2000, her Republican rival, Rick Lazio, walked over to Clinton during a debate waving a pledge he demanded she sign; the subsequent outrage over what was seen as an invasion of Clinton's personal space both solidified Clinton's support among women and underlined that gender remained very much an issue in politics.

''...you can't make a point forcefully if you're a man and the person you are making a point with is a woman," Lazio said at the time in response to the anger directed towards him. He added: ''I just think that that's sexist.''

Yet in the 2010 races, male politicians had no problems aggressively challenging their female opponents, and the female candidates were more likely to highlight their business experience than their gender.

That doesn't mean that the playing field isn't changing, however. Consider the significant media interest that resulted from comments by Fiorina, who did not seem to realize she was on a live microphone, that her Democratic opponent, Barbara Boxer, has hair that is "so yesterday." The comment was cast by some as evidence of a burgeoning catfight between the two female candidates.

"...it is not a good way to start a woman-on-woman race by playing into negative stereotypes about female culture," political science professor Bruce E. Cain told the New York Times.

It is hard to separate gender from one of the man GOP criticisms of Boxer: That she was behaving inappropriately when she pointedly asked a general to call her "'senator' instead of 'ma'am.'"

"It's just a thing," Boxer said at a hearing. "I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Yes, thank you."

The exchange prompted not one but two attack websites, www.CallMeMaam.com, which redirects visitors to the National Republican Senatorial Committee's Boxer opposition page, and http://callmebarbara.com/. During the primary, GOP hopeful Chuck DeVore's campaign produced a popular video in which footage of Boxer making the comments was shown next to a clip from an Austin Powers movie in which Dr. Evil gets upset with those calling him to him as "Mr. Evil."

Yet to some the comment reflects a desire by women to be granted the respect they deserve.

"I think many California women resonate to the request to acknowledge their accomplishments," Barbara O'Connor, professor of communications at Sacramento State University, told the Associated Press. "How you address someone is often a window to how much credibility you feel they have."

In the wake of Tuesday's victories, a debate emerged over what the success of female Republican candidates meant for women more broadly. Appearing on "Good Morning America" Tuesday, Daily Beast editor Tina Brown said their wins "are kind of a blow to feminism."

"Because, each one of them, really, most of them, are, you know, very much, uh, uh, you know, against so many of things that women have fought for such a long time," she said.

The claim prompted outrage among the conservative blogosphere. "...no matter how diverse the GOP becomes, the authenticity card will always be there to discredit its candidates," wrote Hot Air's Allahpundit. "Four huge wins by Republican women over male opponents? Oh well: If you're not pro-choice then you're not a feminist, no matter how much power you may have or how hard you may have worked to get it."

In a lament of the "fascist feminist" movement, meanwhile, Cassy Fiano - who appears on her blog in a tank top, pointing a gun and smiling - wrote that women like Brown "champion strong, empowered women, yet they consistently try to instill a victim mentality in women."

The question of victimhood arose more than once in Haley's South Carolina primary, though it wasn't necessarily clear who was the victim in question. Haley aggressively denied two allegations she had engaged in extramarital affairs and resisted being cast as a victim after a political rival criticized her using a racial slur. Her success appears to have been rooted in part in her deft handling of the situations: Even if she benefited from the sort of rallying-around effect that boosted Clinton in 2000, she never appeared to be seeking it out.

Perhaps the deftest practitioner of negotiating the complexities of gender and politics is Palin, who has lauded "mama grizzlies" and given many of her endorsements to women; she has positioned herself as the leader of a female conservative voting bloc that has not previously had a figure to rally around. Palin can be both brashly dismissive of the importance of gender while also acknowledging its significance: She famously suggested that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.

Yet it is Clinton who has perhaps been the transformative figure when it comes to women in politics, with a career that has included a journey from dutiful first lady during the Monica Lewinsky scandal to election to the Senate to groundbreaking presidential campaign to her current role as Secretary of State, where her gender has been little discussed.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, in a moment that seemed to mark an evolution about American attitudes toward female politicians, Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey decreed that Clinton is a "bitch" - and went on to argue that that was exactly what the country needed.

"You know what? Bitches get stuff done," Fey said. "That's why Catholic Schools use nuns and not priests... At the end of the school year you hated those bitches, but you knew the capital of Vermont."