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Campaigning while female
Campaigning while female
by Jennifer Vanasco - SGN Contributing Writer

About a month ago, I was traveling to my mom's house in Virginia, listening to a liberal political talk show where the host was encouraging his listeners to call in about the Democratic candidates.

In between callers, he said something like, "Now, I'm going to get in trouble for this. I know I'm going to get in trouble. I just think that it's a serious time for our country - we're in a war, the economy isn't great - and we need serious leadership. I just think, you know, that we shouldn't change horses in midstream. We shouldn't take risks."

I was sure that he was going to say something like, "We should all just vote Republican," or "We should go back to a Clinton, because those were good times for the country."

Instead, he said, "So I'm just saying that we shouldn't vote for a woman. The time isn't right to change to a woman president."

The top of my head almost blew off, I was so angry. The time wasn't right to vote for a woman? Meaning what? That a woman would be less competent than a man?

Yet a lot of people think this, still, even if they don't say it explicitly. So I wasn't surprised when gender started to be mentioned as an issue in the media a couple of weeks ago. I was just surprised that it took so long.

It's dangerous to campaign as a female. Politics, as everyone knows, is a dirty business - if a woman is successful at it, some see her as unlikable, cold, a bitch. But many people assume that a woman won't be a successful leader, because she's a woman - and women by their nature are emotional, indecisive and irrational.

The best thing I learned from attending a women's college, though, are that women leaders come in all flavors. There are consensus-building women leaders and dictatorial women leaders. There are kind women leaders and ruthless women leaders. There are women who get by on their looks and women who get by on their connections and women who used the full scope of their intelligence, work ethic and passion.

Women, I mean, are a lot like men.

But most people unconsciously (or consciously, like our radio talk show host above) still hold a bias against women leaders, according to several studies by researchers Alice H. Eagly and Linda Carli. In their book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, they talk about why this is. (They also come to the conclusion that women are at least as good leaders as men, and perhaps better.)

The trouble, they say, is that people want women leaders to adhere to two competing standards of behavior simultaneously.

On the one hand, because they are female, people want women leaders to act like stereotypical women: nice, affectionate, friendly, soft-spoken. But people also want women leaders to act like leaders: decisive, independent, logical, forceful.

And while men who exhibit some of the better female qualities - like empathy and kindness - are well regarded, women who exhibit some male qualities - like dominance - are not.

This, then, has been the additional burden Hillary Clinton has faced during the long campaign season. Americans worry that a woman will be too soft to be president - Clinton knew this, and ran a serious campaign based on her expertise and experience. Reporters than derided her as cold.

But when her eyes welled up on the campaign trail as she talked with a circle of women, some commentators questioned whether that was a sign that she wasn't hard enough - competent enough - to lead. They figured that this show of weakness would turn voters away. (Instead, as we now know, it drew women to her, because they understood those tears of frustration and fatigue for what they were. The common wisdom of the political chattering classes quickly changed. Tears suddenly became a mighty fine idea.)

Hillary Clinton has said that "neither race nor gender have any place in this campaign." I only wish that that were so. Of course race and gender are central in the Democratic campaign, because a woman and a black man are frontrunners for the first time in our history.

Instead of pretending that gender isn't involved in this campaign, we need to admit that it is. We need to celebrate it - because it is wonderful and amazing that we may have a female nominee from a major party - and we also need to make explicit the questions and concerns people have about female leaders, so that they can be addressed.

So yes, that talk show host made me furious. But I also wish I could sit down with him for a couple hours - and hand him Eagly and Carli's book, and talk about women and leadership. Because it's OK with me if he doesn't vote for Hillary Clinton - that's his choice. I just don't want him to withhold his vote from her because she's a woman.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning, syndicated columnist. E-mail her at She writes daily on the Gay political site

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