Paradox: A true statement that leads to a situation that defies intuition.
Strides for female political equality have been both creeping and leaping. In 1887, Susanna Salter became the first woman mayor in the country. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman Supreme Court Justice in 1981. In 2008, Hilary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party’s presidential primary. Today’s powerful female politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Jan Brewer, Nikki Haley and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, have given a new voice to women in America. However, despite the changes in the national political scene, political equality for women remains a paradox.
Inequalities between men and women divide this country in almost every way. Most of us are aware how the political gender gap started. Women were once considered the property of men. Women were denied the right to own property of their own, denied the right to vote and the right to run for office. Women were even required to show their husbands’ signature to obtain a credit card, rent an apartment or apply for a job. The classic glass ceiling does not constrain the political progress of women as one is lead to believe. Rather, the perpetual political paradox is enforced by gender traits, behavioral roles and physical characteristics.
In subtle and overt ways, prescribed gender roles dictate what men and women are capable of doing. More generalized cultural norms create even narrower definitions of what women should and should not do, and in some areas of society, cannot do. Where men are perceived as aggressive and competitive, women are more likely to be viewed as passive and cooperative. Traditionally, men are viewed as the dominant provider and women are viewed as the submissive caretaker. Unfortunately, these views have bled onto the political playing field.
Even the media has served as a vehicle for the political stereotyping of women. For example, the media criticized Senator Elena Kagan for being unmarried, as if to say that her marital status is inextricably intertwined with her ability to be a strong political figure. During the last presidential campaign, the media passed judgment on Sarah Palin from the size of her family to the cost of her outfits. Indeed, press stories about female politicians are far more likely to include mention of hairstyles, shopping and familial-political time management, while press coverage of male politicians are more likely to focus solely on substantive issues.
The political opportunities women have striven for have their price, and some things are slower to change than others. Women are still perceived as having the primary role of caretaker of the family and home. It is the mother who leaves the office, picks up the child and stays home until the child is well enough to return to school. Women are still the primary doers of housework. Women are still responsible for most of the food shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry and beautification of the home. At the end of the day, all professional women, including female politicians, are expected to wear two hats: the competent professional and passive caregiver. Despite a woman’s best efforts, both hats cannot be worn at the same time and failure to don the appropriate persona at the appropriate time may result in professional suicide or a broken home. Given the progress of our society and advances to women in recent decades, this conflicting dichotomy defies logic.
It isn’t enough for women to aspire to have the same rights and access to political power as men. Women should not settle for an in-name only share of leadership. Women must seek to change the societal views that have defined a woman’s place at work and in the home. Rather than simply demanding a place at the table, women must craft new definitions of political equality based on collaboration, community and inclusion. Women must have the courage and imagination to chart a wholly different way of organizing economic and political systems grounded in principles of egalitarianism. Women must use their experiences and talents to create a new approach to political power that does not defy intuition. It must be a new truth that yields to intuition.
Written by Shantel James