The other week, in preparation for an important interview, my mom offered to buy me a formal outfit. Being the starving college student that I am, I was not going to turn down free clothes, so I agreed to go. Accustomed to campus casual, I was in no way prepared for what lay in store for me: the pantsuit. After two hours of trying on pinstripes and neutral colors, I came away with a not-so-ugly jacket-skirt combo and a new-found understanding of Hillary Clinton.
My quasi-traumatic shopping experience made me think about what it means to be a woman and a leader in our society. Even though I have always imagined myself going into law, government or business, it had never occurred to me until I stood in front of the department store mirror, that this is what my future looked like and it had shoulder pads. Why is it that the only clothing appropriate for female leaders remains shapeless, masculine pantsuits?
Regardless of our sense of progressive gender equality, forty-five years after the Equal Pay Act, gender remains an issue for powerful women. Jean Robinson, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences, said criticisms are made of women leaders that are never made of men.
One of the issues that women face, Robinson said, is that sometimes women are in no-win situations. Clinton is a perfect example. Throughout her campaign she was criticized for being unfeeling, but when she shed a tear in New Hampshire, she was donned too sensitive.
The recent criticism of Sarah Palin is another example. The female governor has been hammered with questions about whether it is appropriate for someone who has five children to seek such a high office. Yet no one raised an eyebrow at Sen. Dick Lugars four sons or questioned why John F. Kennedy would want to run for president with two small children.
Even more disconcerting is the level of social acceptance that these ideas entertain. The Facebook group Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich maintains 36,526 members and there are ten other groups about her masculinity ( la Hillary Clinton is a Man and I Will Not Vote for Him). How is it still so socially acceptable to suggest that women belong in the kitchen and not in the White House?
In terms of womens issues, we have entered into that dangerous plateau of complacency.
Prejudice is no longer discussed because our equal wages and presence in the work force make it less overt, but the fact that these associations are subconscious makes them all the more threatening. Fundamental doubts about female aptitude are hidden in the questions about Palin and are cloaked in the design of pantsuits. As the aspiring leaders, bankers and lawyers of the future, it is college womens responsibility to ask these questions, because in the future we will define what it means to wear the proverbial pants, whether they come as part of a suit or not.