Women Explore Gender Roles In American Politics At U. Iowa

This story was written by Erin Hanley, The Daily Iowan


So who is the real Sarah Palin?

Is it the self-proclaimed hockey mom who shoots moose out on the Alaskan tundra or the winking woman who strides across stages wearing clothing that cost the Republican National Committee around $150,000?

The presence of the discussion about this has led some local women to delve into gender roles in the presidential elections, saying that judging a woman strictly on her appearance or how much her clothing costs may be sexism and may keep some women from entering the political sphere in Iowa.

There has never been a female governor or congresswoman in Iowa's history. If Mariannette Miller-Meeks defeats Democratic Dave Loebsack on Nov. 4, she will be the first Iowan woman to enter Congress.

At the Women's Resource and Action Center, 10 women gathered to discuss these topics, with a recurring theme emerging: Women should be more accepted in politics.

"It wasn't that [Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin] had bought an expensive suit but what was underneath that we aren't sure about," said Kelly Thornburg, the coordinator of the women's advocacy group, noting that Palin's self-described "average citizen" persona seemingly contradicts her high-priced garments.

University of Iowa graduate student Lea Davis said people should measure someone's intelligence by substance rather than appearance.

"We recognize that these are the rules," said Laurie Haag, a program developer for WRAC. "Do we play by them, or change it?"

Some in the media don't seem to want anything to change, incessantly drawing attention to the fashion of female political figures, which may be distracting, some women at the forum said.

"It is just a way for the media to diminish the female candidate," Thornburg said. "Women have to be far more careful than men."

Twice in the last year, women have been criticized for what they wear. First, Hillary Rodham Clinton was mocked for wearing a low-cut blouse last year, and now Sarah Palin for the price of her new duds. Such is the constant battle women face in politics, women advocates said.

Next topic of discussion: feminism.

Rodham Clinton maintained staunch feminist views through the primary season, but Palin has flip-flopped, which might be because the media have made the term negative, some theorized.

"It is hard to separate gender out of the classes," said Haag. "And equally hard to ignore it."

Rather than settle for second best, Thornburg encouraged women to seek the highest-level positions, similar to Rodham Clinton's run for the presidency. In fact, the WRAC has begun a program called the Iowa National Education for Women's Leadership, which officials say will prepare female students to run for political office.

"We've had girls come in wanting to be in the background of campaigns in the beginning," Haag said. "By the end of the program, they want to run for a leading position."

While in the program, students have the opportunity to meet successful women leaders, develop leadership skills, and discover how to change public policy.

Some women may find it difficult to find the right public image because there's so little precedent, Thornburg said.

"Unfortunately, women do not have a leader to look up to when giving a speech," said Thornburg, "There isn't a leader for a woman to compare herself with."
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