It’s been just over a month since the International Day of Women came and went, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. Say what you will about the idea of a Day of Women, it does exist and if it causes us to think about women, their role in our society, how that role has shifted/developed/stagnated and just what women are anyhow, then I feel that it is quite inspiring. It certainly inspired me in thinking about the role of women and how it has changed over time, but it also made me wonder how we perceive women in these roles.
Perhaps serendipitously, perhaps owing to the strange logic by which the universe winkingly abides, I was given an interesting assignment in my Slovene language class just before March 8th (which is the International Day of Women, for those who are not as familiar with it, as I was not until I started spending more time in Eastern Europe several years ago). We were all asked to choose a remarkable woman from our own country (the people in my class are all from different countries, and I am the only American, by the way) and write about her. The topic was very general: it could be a historical figure, a woman of social, scientific or political importance today, a writer, an artist…whatever we wanted. And somehow, the first woman that came to mind was Hilary Clinton, followed immediately by Sarah Palin.
I would like to preface this by saying that I am going to do my best here to steer clear of political leanings and personal likes and dislikes. I can honestly say that when I reflected on these women and their perception in the media, I did so without thinking specifically about whether their political arguments make sense or not, whether I agreed with what they or their supporters say or even what my past opinions about them have been. I simply tried to look at them both as women and ask myself how they seemed to fill the role of a modern woman. That said, these are only my observations and musings and must be taken with that ever-important grain of sodium chloride.
As I was faced with a decision whether to write about Clinton, Palin or someone else, I began to ask myself why these two women appeared so prominent in my mind when I thought of women of significance. What, besides careers in politics, did these two women have in common? Did one lead logically from the other, as they are both prominent female leaders who stand on opposite sides of the fence and occasionally weigh in on the other’s worth and contribution to society? Well, maybe that is what brought them to mind, and that’s fair enough. But what kept them in my mind was far more intriguing. I began to ask myself what we expected of these two people, not as political leaders, but as women. This led me quickly to the question that was the topic of my Slovene assignment: what do we expect of the modern woman, and how do we expect her to behave in order to receive our respect and our love?
I recognize that this question is an oversimplification of a very important issue, and I in no way mean to appear cavalier or brazen in my approach. I claim to have no answers, nor do I claim to have the right questions, but I do have questions, and I think that they are worth asking.
On the one hand we have Hilary Clinton, who has demonstrated time and again that women are just as strong as men. Since relinquishing her role as First Lady, Clinton has gone on to serve as a senator from New York, campaign for president and serve as secretary of state. Regardless of one’s political bent, no one can deny that Clinton has had success and has showed that she is deserving of respect in her field. Again, I am focusing on her accomplishments and not on her politics. Despite these accomplishments, however, Clinton has certainly had her share of detractors. Once more paying particular attention to those complaints that do not relate specifically to her side of the aisle, I would like to look at some of them.
I can remember even as a teenager hearing the jokes about Hilary Clinton. That she wore that pants, that Bill Clinton had to ask her permission before formulating policy, that you had to go through Hilary to get to Bill. And even after she made her own way in politics, the jokes kept coming. In short, Hilary was too strong. She was so strong that she had become a man. She had even become cold and unfeeling, lacking the caring qualities that ‘define’ a woman. Thus, rather than being a powerful woman, she was simply a man in a pantsuit.
Naturally, many argued in her defense that she had to become more like a man in order to get anywhere and have any kind of success in an environment as male-dominated as American politics. What choice did she have? How can it be fair to put a woman through the wringer for working hard to succeed in a ‘man’s world’? If becoming a successful woman meant that you were a woman no longer, did that not negate her on both counts? How could a country as high-minded and idealistic as ours, one in which equality was supposed to be the goal, allow that to be the case? But of course, no one was really very surprised at all. Hilary had earned our respect, but somehow she had not earned our love.
Now we come to Sarah Palin. No one would argue that Palin is like a man. She is a woman through and through, and she is not shy about presenting herself this way. She would have you see her as the stereotypical mother, even though she is a working mom. And this image works for her. She does seem like a woman, and she does seem like a mom. You could even imagine her baking you cookies or giving you a kiss on the cheek as you go off to school. She is a woman that many women can relate to, and it is easy to see why they loved her. Yet this woman had succeeded in becoming the governor of Alaska and even a candidate for vice president. How could she as a more traditional-seeming woman be so successful? How is it that she managed to get as far as she did without ‘becoming a man’? Because in all of the hullabaloo surrounding her candidacy for vice president, I never once read or heard a remark claiming that she was too strong or too much like a man. But that doesn’t mean that no one was talking.
Folks, remember that we’re putting politics aside as much as possible here. We’re looking at these two women as women, not as representatives of political parties and their ideals. That said, one of the most notable non-political complaints about Sarah Palin was that she was not smart enough to be vice president. People accused her of being naïve and uninformed, and many claimed that she simply lacked the political understanding to be an effective leader. She certainly had the love of the country (and just like Hilary Clinton doesn’t/didn’t have everyone’s respect, I know that the same goes for Sarah Palin), seeing as how she embodied such a symbol of love, but she did not appear to have our respect.
Now the point of all of this was not to inspire a witch hunt. I’m not going to try to argue whether or not Clinton is too mannish or whether or not Palin is too clueless. All I want to look at right now is why it seems that we have to put so many women into one or the other category. Why does a woman have to choose between being powerful and being loved (again, we’re not talking about the charismatic kind of love that comes from politics or fame, but love in a sense of a warm feeling you get about a person. ‘Love’ may not be the best word here, and I’m sure many of you ‘love’ Hilary Clinton just as you don’t love Sarah Palin. The focus here is in the generality, in the overall perception of a person’s womanly characteristics and precisely what those characteristics are and/or should be)? What is it that we as a society are looking for in the successful modern woman? What is the middle ground between these two extremes? This is something we should be asking ourselves very seriously.
Do successful women who buck the trend exist? Sure they do. Can you name a few, or even a lot? I’ll bet you can. The reason I’m writing this is because it seems to me that a few women making it through is not enough. The tide needs to turn. We as a society are faced with a very difficult decision. As long as we demand that women become men in order to be successful, those same women will risk losing something special, something that we place great value on in our society. By the same token, as long as the stereotype exists that women must be soft, tender and motherly and nothing more, we will always have difficulty finding qualified women to play leading roles in our government, in our economy and in our lives.