Women in politics still confront the 'double bind'

Ask yourself: Who is likely to be the first woman president of the United States? Despite our assumption that a female president is inevitable, and likely soonish, it's surprisingly difficult to come up with a name.

Briefly, Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious answer. For a flicker, Sarah Palin was an entertaining notion -- and remains so among a certain contingent of stubborn optimists. Other names surface now and then: Meg Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Napolitano, to name a few.

But who, really, is likely to shatter the White House ceiling? And does America, for all our talk of equality, really want a woman in the highest office?

Washington Post writer Anne Kornblut explores those questions in her excellent new book, "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win." As a reporter on the presidential campaign trail, Ms. Kornblut watched two women rise and fall from the top tickets.

It is easy to argue that Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Palin are so unique that inferences about gender in politics can't be drawn. Mrs. Clinton's role as former first lady and wife of Bill, and all the attendant baggage (not to mention the phenomenon of Barack Obama), inarguably played a bigger role than gender in her defeat. Mrs. Palin, for all her charm and accomplishments, was not a competent candidate. With her winking and flirting, she made herself unserious to many who otherwise would have supported a woman for vice president. Happily.

Even so, it is impossible to argue that these two women were not treated unfairly, often cruelly, by the media and the public -- and even by their own campaigns. What gets leveled at women is of a different order than what men endure. Having lived most of my life in the testosterone-rich environment of men and boys, I'm fairly "ism"-tolerant. That is, every unflattering comment about a woman isn't necessarily "sexist" in my playbook. But lately, for a variety of reasons, the usual inhibitors that have kept overt hostility confined to private spaces have been disabled. In politics, it's open season, as Kornblut meticulously documents.

Thus, we have the Hillary Clinton nutcracker and public references to her as a "bitch." Rush Limbaugh asked whether Americans "want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis."

And we have the "slutty flight attendant" look of Sarah Palin, compliments of David Letterman, who also suggested the rape of one of her daughters. The Internet roiled with sexual jokes and pornified images of Mrs. Palin, amid allegations that her newborn was not her own.

Women are never more complicated than in public life. Ms. Kornblut's observations, though tied to recent events, fit the framework offered 15 years ago by Kathleen Hall Jamieson in her book "Beyond the Double Bind." Essentially, a double bind is a rhetorical construct that posits two, and only two, alternatives -- either of which serves to disempower. Thus, women are either too tough, or not tough enough. Or they can be assertive and thought immodest -- or silent and be dismissed. And so on.

One of five binds Ms. Jamieson described is particularly relevant to Mrs. Palin -- the womb/brain bind. Women can exercise their wombs or their brains, it is thought, but not both. Mrs. Palin, in addition to being a popular governor, was obviously fertile.

In a quirky twist of ideology, Democratic women questioned whether Mrs. Palin could be both vice president and the mother of a newborn, while also helping her pregnant teenage daughter. Republicans, ever the defenders of traditional family norms, were delighted that their candidate had managed to balance career and family with the help of that rare dreamboat, the helpful husband. It's all complicated.

What's clear is that women are held to a different standard than men and, when deemed unworthy, are attacked specifically as women, according to stereotypes we pretend to shun.

To the extent that we truly believe women ought to play a more vital role in American society -- and this question remains open -- we have to wonder why any woman would submit to the punishments we've recently witnessed.

Unfortunately, most won't.

Kathleen Parker's column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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