Women and politics a hard line to cross
July 6, 2007
ASPEN Women have finally gained a foothold in American politics but it has taken decades to break through “the old boys club” in Washington, D.C., to get there.That was the overriding theme during Friday’s panel discussion, “Women and American Politics,” moderated by veteran journalist Andrea Mitchell.During the Aspen Ideas Festival, some of the most powerful women in politics shared their stories about how they broke through the glass ceiling in a male-dominated profession. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said her male counterparts were dismissive of her on many occasions – even after she became the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.
Albright remembers that when she first took office, her colleagues were skeptical of her effectiveness, particularly in Muslim countries. “I had no problem, because of course, I arrived in a large plane that said ‘United States of America,'” she joked. “I had more problems with men in our own government.”You think it’s over when you have the job. It’s not,” Albright added. “Every single day, I had to prove that I could do the job.”When Albright was the U.N. ambassador, she said she voiced her concerns about the strife in the Balkans early on, only for Gen. Colin Powell to be dismissive.”He said, ‘Oh, Madeleine, don’t be so emotional, you don’t know anything about the military,'” Albright said, joking that Powell would show up in full military garb with medals dangling from his chest. “I just had a little pin on. … I was just a mere mortal woman.”U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recalls that when she ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, she didn’t get much support from men – or women. “Everybody said ‘Something must be wrong with her marriage, and that’s why she’s running for political office.'” After 15 campaigns and decades of political experience, Feinstein said it’s still an uphill battle to be heard. And given that women couldn’t vote until 1920 and weren’t allowed to own property, Feinstein said she’s not surprised at how difficult it has been to break through the barriers.
“Women had to fight for everything in this democracy,” she said.Despite the challenges, women have come a long way in power and politics, and rightfully so, said U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.Harman was elected in 1992, the same year that Feinstein took the Senate seat. Feinstein described it as the “year of the woman” because the number of women in the House of Representatives doubled. Today, there are 17 women in the Senate and more than 70 in the House.”Women have arrived and are qualified to serve any position in this country,” Harman said. “When there is a woman in the White House, which will be in my lifetime, people will pinch themselves and say, ‘Why did it take so long?'”Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid became a topic of conversation on many levels, but particularly on how she and her husband, Bill, conduct themselves on the campaign trail. Bill’s presence appears choreographed in an effort not to dominate or overshadow Hillary, who wears mainly black these days.”She dresses for strength,” Feinstein said. She also expressed her hope that Clinton would cross party lines if she were to win: “The greatest problem with Washington is partisan politics.”All the panel members agreed that the presidential campaign thus far has lacked substance. And the press coverage has focused more on the candidates’ personas than the issues.”[Hillary] should talk about her life and the issues, and I think that will impress everybody,” Harman said. “She is an excellent senator.”
The subtext of Hillary’s campaign and the public’s view that she’s aggressive highlight the double standard, Albright said.Different adverbs are used with women,” she said, adding that critics label a woman who cries as “emotional,” but when a man does it (particularly the president) it’s a symbol of empathy.”People think that’s kind of neat, but if a woman gets wobbly it’s bad,” Albright said. “There is no question that we are judged on a different scale than others.”U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said it’s true that women face double standards in politics, but she said it’s not all gloom and doom.”I can silence a group of male hard-liners if I’m prepared,” she said.Harman said it’s imperative that older women serve as role models in politics to keep their strength in numbers in Washington.”It’s our obligation to mentor young women and girls,” she said. “If we don’t make that clear, we are not exercising our power properly.”Carolyn Sackariason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org