It was truly an exciting moment in history, and one that I assumed, in my collegiate naivete, was the beginning--finally--of what would surely be true equality for women in the workforce and in politics. Yet the death last week of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1984, reminds us that we are far from achieving basic parity between the sexes, even more than a quarter century later.
Women still earn less than men, and are woefully underrepresented in upper management and in politics. Women for the first time last year earned more doctoral degrees than men, and more women than men are attending college. Yet media and marketing still cling to the stereotype of women as helpers and wannabe brides. Soap commercials still feature a female consumer; she might be on her way out the door to a job, but it is the woman, and not her husband, who is apparently responsible for household upkeep. Movie-makers have finally given in to the idea that women have job and interests other than finding a husband, but they make the female characters pay for it. Even in female-directed movies, such as Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, the lead female character is a famous and financially successful playwright, but nonetheless a pathetic mess of insecurities. [See a slide show of the women of the Senate.]
Is it any wonder it’s taking so long for women to get ahead on politics? Her motives are suspected, her commitment to family (or lack of a husband and children) is questioned. If she indeed advances, remarks are made (as they were about Ferraro) that she was some kind of token pick, an unqualified person given a boost because of her gender. If that were true, we’d have more women in politics. A political commentator remarked during the 2008 presidential primary that Hillary Clinton would not have gotten as far as she has had it not been for her husband. That rightly offended a lot of people, but there’s a truth to it: while supremely qualified and utterly brilliant, Clinton would have faced difficulty getting the media attention and serious consideration given to male candidates who have nowhere near Clinton’s abilities and smarts. The female candidates whose names are being bandied about for 2012 have questionable credentials for the White House; that’s true. But previous presidential campaigns are filled with unimpressive or inexperienced male candidates. Should Michele Bachmann’s campaign be taken any less seriously than one by Donald Trump? [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination?]
When so relatively few women run for office, there’s a tendency--perhaps even more so on the part of activist women--to demand more of the female candidates, since they are thrust into the role of historic symbol. Bachmann is in many ways a troubling candidate, having made bizarre statements about President Obama and lacking any kind of foreign policy credentials. But it’s some kind of progress when women rush into the field with the same hubris men have.