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Madam President? August 12, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Claire McCaskill, Health Care, Hillary Clinton, National Politics, Politics, Presidential Politics, Republicans, Sarah Palin, Women's Issues.
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claire-mccaskill-and-flag1As a woman, I hate to admit that I have always had a problem with women politicians.  I view them in the way I have always looked at the female bosses I have had; they’ve worked so hard to make it in a man’s world that they have become male clones.  The qualities that we value in women – empathy, nurturing, listening, and comprehension – are highly valued leadership qualities.  Most women turn their back on this in favor of the “tough manager” requirement of leaders.   But leadership is not merely management.

For the past three years, I have been involved in a series of leadership forums both as a participant and as an instructor.  Good leaders are hard to find – and it is very difficult to teach leadership to anyone.  It is a lot easier to teach women how to be tough and effective managers than it is to teach men to be caring and empathetic leaders. 

This was the problem, I believe, that Hillary Clinton had with voters.  Her advisers probably told her that the first serious female candidate for President needed to be perceived as tough.  This is why she could never back down on her position on the Iraq War.  That position cost her with the Liberal base voters – the ones that generally show up for primaries and caucuses.  Even Sarah Palin – who doesn’t seem to have an empathetic bone in her body – was handled incorrectly.  Despite her obvious intellectual shortcomings, Sarah could have been sold to the American public.  She was, after all, only nominated as Vice-President, and no matter what you think of John McCain’s age – he seems pretty healthy.  Instead, Sarah was sent out as the attack dog; the pit bull with lipstick attacking the Obama campaign and chewing it up.   The McCain campaign should have played up Palin’s management and leadership skills both as a local and state politician – but also as the mother of five managing a job and a household.  People – women and men – would have responded.

There are, however, two women politicians out there with national profiles that fit this new mold of female leader.  They are Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz (D- FL) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D- MO).  

Rep. Wasserman-Shultz is the first Jewish congresswoman ever to be elected from Florida.  She served many years in the State Legislature and is well known for her fierce advocacy of women and children’s issues as well as her principled position during the Terri Schiavo debacle.  She is one tough lady – but she is also the mother of three and waged a personal battle against breast cancer – all while serving her constituents and taking care of her family.  I have a great admiration for this woman – and agree that she bears watching for the political future.

Then there’s Claire McCaskill.  She first came to my attention early in the Democratic primaries last year as an early and vocal supporter of Barack Obama.  McCaskill was elected as the first woman Senator from Missouri in 2006.  She has a background as an attorney and prosecutor and served as Missouri state auditor prior to her election to the Senate.  McCaskill spent many years raising her children as a single mom and exhibits the toughness and no-nonsense approach that is the hallmark of the single mother. 

What really has grabbed my attention about McCaskill recently has been her demeanor in contentious town hall meetings during the past few weeks.  In the face of these angry, shouting mobs, she has kept her cool and been able to bring real information to the “Fixed-News” ginned-up crowds.  Yesterday, Senator McCaskill held a meeting in St. Louis.  Many of the hundreds of people in the crowd were obviously there to shout her down but she was actually able to make  a few points about the misinformation floating around out there – and on several occasions, seemed to calm the unruly constituents (?) down.  It truly was a heroic performance (watch video clips HERE).

Women like McCaskill and Wasserman-Shultz have that “just-right” mix of principles, character, toughness, and empathy that make them the perfect women to grab this nation’s highest office.   If either of them choose to run – I am totally on board.

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Frustrated Friday July 24, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Politics, Presidential Politics, Sexism, Women's Issues.
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screamEarlier this week, I read a piece in The American Prospect by Courtney E. Martin  about the lessons that Sarah Palin’s rise and candidacy can teach feminists.  One of Martin’s main points is that “women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity”. 

That may be – but is a woman’s femininity actually defined by the ability to “flex their muscles while painting their fingernails”, as Martin says in her article?  Sarah Palin is, undoubtedly, an attractive woman.  Can only an attractive woman wearing an updo and stilettos be considered feminine?  Answering this question then leads us to the next – can only “feminine” women be viable candidates for public office? 

The last election cycle was rampant with sexism.  On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was vilified for her pantsuits and steely character.  Her appearance and apparent “lack of femininity” was a frequent talking point as well as the basis for many late-night comics jokes.   Remember when Hillary teared up in New Hampshire?  I and many of my female friends were appalled – there is no circumstance where any serious woman will cry at work – but we were further horrified by the reaction to it.  Hillary showed she was human!  Hillary “softened up” and let us see the “real” person behind that facade!  Then, Hillary won the primary, reinforcing the stereotype that only a “womanly woman” could capture our attention. 

On the Republican side, there was Sarah Palin.   As a party not known for it’s equal opportunity for women and minorities, Republicans saw the hunger in American women for a female on the ticket and in what could have been a brilliant political move, picked a woman for number two.  But instead of reaching into the pool of Republican women with actual experience and gravitas (Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Susan Collins, Kay Granger, or Olympia Snowe), the party went with Sarah Palin. 

Sarah Palin was placed on the ticket as the “anti-Hillary”.  As Amanda Hess explains in her July 22 blog post  in the Washington City Paper, “Palin’s femininity wasn’t just tolerated—it was magnified, obsessed over, and valued above her qualifications. Palin’s femininity wasn’t respected as a personal choice—it was practically a prerequisite for her position.”  When Palin’s lack of knowledge and experience started becoming widely known, the party yelled “sexism” every time she was criticized.  What was lost on her loyal cadre of supporters, however, was that the Republican party made a sexist move by placing her on the ticket above so many more well-qualified women.

Last week, President Obama named Dr. Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General.  Benjamin is an Alabama family-practice physician who founded a clinic in Bayou La Batre, LA and has rebuilt it twice after hurricanes and fire.  She now operates the clinic out of a rented house and, in a town where about 40 percent of residents are without health insurance, she won’t turn any patient away for inability to pay.  Benjamin has also served as the first black woman to head the State of Alabama Medical Association and was associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine.benjamin

So, has the news about Dr. Benjamin focused on her selfless service to medicine and the medically under-served populations of the rural south?  Has all the reporting on her appointment focused on her excellent qualifications?  Of course not!  It seems as though the biggest news about Dr. Regina Benjamin is that she “appears to be about 40 pounds overweight” and is not an appropriate choice to lead the nation’s public health program. 

Despite the fact that many studies have shown that being overweight does not necessarily equal poor health, the anti-fat bias machine got to work right away.  “Obesity kills over 400,000 Americans per year,” said public health “expert” and Anti-Gym owner Michael Karolchyk said on Fox News while dressed in his classy “No Chubbies” t-shirt.  As an article in Harvard Health Policy Review reported in 2003: “The major problem with this ‘obesity kills’ statistic is the lack of compelling evidence to substantiate it.” 

But let’s not get overburdened with these pesky facts here.  Regina Benjamin is a woman, and no matter what her accomplishments and resume say, she has committed the cardinal sin for all women – being overweight.  Poor Dr. Benjamin.  She is facing the triple whammy of discrimination – racial minority, female, and – horror of all horrors – overweight.  Dr. C. Everett Koop was no skinny-Minny, but he was never attacked for his somewhat substantial girth.

nutri-system-press-2008_0003-312x425For women, this emphasis on looks is deeply ingrained in the popular culture.  It drives me to absolute distraction every night when I’m watching The Situation Room to see Jillian Barberie Reynolds (Fox NFL sports reporter and Nutri-System success story) tossing a football to Dan Marino – all while dressed in her skimpy bikini.  When do I get to see Marino in a Speedo?  Just as Dan Marino in a Speedo has nothing to do with his career as a football player, why does Reynold’s football reporting career hinge on how good she looks in an orange bikini?

During the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, the (white and male) Republican Senators made much of the New Haven firefighter case whereby some white and male applicants for promotion were denied when the city decided to throw out the promotional exam.  There was a lot of sympathy on the right – and some on the left –  that these poor guys should have just been judged on their qualifications – not their ethnicities or skin colors.  Why can’t women get the same?