The feminine critique

Women in politics came a long way in 2008, but the weight of double standards endures
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  December 24, 2008

LADIES WHO LAUNCH: Carla Bruni, Hillary Clinton, Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama

It was almost a banner year for women in politics.

Yes, women garnered public support while they competed for the two highest offices in the land (Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton), already possessed the third (Nancy Pelosi), had high-visibility roles in both the race for the Oval Office (Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain) and on the international stage (Carla Bruni), and, in our own fair city, battled in a rare two-woman contest for a State Senate seat (Dianne Wilkerson and Sonia Chang-Díaz).

But while these personalities spanned the spectrum in age, race, geography, political party, and ideology in a year that saw women in the political spotlight as never before, one thing united them all: our obsession with their bodies, wardrobes, and adorable regional accents.

Oh, ladies. This was the year we were so close to playing political hardball with the big boys, without having to battle gender stereotyping and misogynist cultural attitudes. And yet — even 88 years after the passing of the 19th Amendment — we were so far.

Body politics
Divisive as she was, we couldn't get enough of Sarah Palin in 2008. Though no one south of Nome had even heard of her before August, she thoroughly energized religious nuts, Zamboni drivers, and pit-bull owners — and horrified everyone else.

Her gender was a lightning rod from the very moment she was picked, as debate raged over whether she was either a) a maverick-y female chief executive of an energy-rich state, or b) a cynical political choice made (in the wake of Hillary Clinton's defeat) by a senile old man rarin' to shake the geriatric foundations of his rudderless campaign. And, at various points of the campaign, both sides seemed to have valid arguments.

She certainly performed much better in debates than any detractor would have believed (though we could have done without the winking and the shout outs to elementary-school kids), and her stump speeches proved her an even better draw than the man on top of the ticket. But a series of jaw-dropping gaffes, a general lack of anything resembling an understanding of foreign policy, and that goddamned exorbitant wardrobe exposed her as less than ready to step into the leader of the free world's shoes.

Palin did come pretty darn close to the Oval Office. And she's already considered a front-runner for 2012. Which gives her four years to start reading newspapers and to get some stamps in her recently acquired passport.

Cackles and cankles
Perhaps the biggest female loser in the 2008 political spotlight was Hillary Clinton. She was the top seed for the Democratic nomination from way back, and it was her contest to lose. And she actually did pretty well in the race: with the exception of Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, she took home the biggest primary prizes (winning New York, California, Texas, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania). But her campaign was never able to translate these victories into a sustained momentum.

Perhaps that's because the public and media ultimately cared more about her hideous pantsuits and the Bubba factor than they did her policies. As the world learned this year, the unfortunate truth about a female presidential candidate is that she's still scrutinized as a woman first, and as a politician second.

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