Editorial: Political acrobatics

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Regardless of your political beliefs, you can’t deny that Hillary Clinton is hardly your stereotypical grandma.

While no known studies have analyzed her prowess in cookie-baking, knitting or rocking chair-oscillating, such things are slightly overshadowed by the fact that Clinton may very well become the next president of the United States.

While Clinton has yet to confirm any sort of 2016 presidential bid, rumors of her candidacy have continued to swirl more and more furiously over the past several months. Indeed, a December 2014 poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 50 percent of American voters said they could see themselves supporting Clinton if she chooses to run in 2016, thus rendering her the early presidential frontrunner.

However theoretical her road to the presidency, it’s certainly paved the way for a media frenzy. Not necessarily one about the fact that Hillary Clinton may become president — but rather, that a woman may become president. The 19th Amendment, adopted in 1920, decrees that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Nearly 100 years later, however, women continue to be denied and abridged in many regards.

Type the words “female politicians” into the Google search bar, and you’re offered such related search terms as “female politicians who smoke,” “female politicians’ appearance,” “female politicians’ hairstyles” and even “female politicians’ legs.”

Type “male politicians” into that same search bar, and popular similar search suggestions include “male politicians’ names,” “male politicians in the US” and “male politicians against abortion.”

The tendency to base perceptions of female politicians on personality traits rather than political stance or credentials hits home on a more individual basis, as well. For instance, former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, famously dubbed “the Iron Lady” by the Russian press in 1976, was also unflatteringly referred to as “Atilla the Hen.” Sarah Palin was frequently named “Caribou Barbie,” “Alaskan Evita” and “Bayonetta” during her 2008 vice presidential run. And Condoleezza Rice was often called “Warrior Princess” throughout her term as Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009.

As Sarah Kendzior writes in Politico, “There are…two main tracks for the female (politician): intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming.” Indeed, women vying for political office tend to campaign in a dramatically differently style than their male counterparts. Assertive and confident female politicians are all too prone to being diagnosed as aggressive, bitchy, bossy or volatile — while the same traits are viewed as signs of competency in males. If female politicians are viewed as too kind or caring, they’re immediately dismissed as weak. It’s a precarious and thin line to tread – and the acrobatic tactics are not reserved for politics alone. People don’t necessarily expect female leaders to do anything differently than male leaders, but our standards for judging the two sexes’ authoritative ability are drastically different.

“What data shows, above all else, is one thing…that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in a 2010 TED Talk.

But why? Women, particularly in politics, still tend to exhibit higher degrees of collaboration, agreeableness and progressiveness than many men. As Quorum, an analytics-based Internet startup, found Feb. 19 in a study that took place over the past seven years, the average female senator co-sponsored 6.29 bills with another Senate woman, while the average male senator co-sponsored 4.07 bills with another Senate man. Quorum’s analysis also found that the average female senator co-sponsored 171.08 bills with a member of the opposite party, while that figure was only 129.87 for the average male senator. And still, only 20 of the 100 current Senate members are female.

In 2008, furthermore, actresses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were harshly criticized for their caricatures of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, respectively, on Saturday Night Live. The pair pointedly met the sharp reviews with the assertion that comedians should not treat female politicians any more softly than male politicians.

In a similar vein, journalists, fellow politicians and citizens at large are not required to treat female politicians gently. Public figures are naturally subject to high levels of scrutiny, and anyone is entitled to form their own opinions and analyses of politicians, male or female. But a politician’s gender — rather, anyone’s gender — should not form the basis of others’ judgment.

Regardless of whether Clinton ends up becoming president or even running for the presidency, her potential to both run and win marks a profound step toward gender equality. By no means, however, would her election solve the gender gap unconditionally. The key is to judge her, as well as any other leaders, based on their ability to do their jobs.

Not by how well they may adhere to societal expectations.

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