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COLUMN

Altering Public Conceptions of Female Candidates

Chen Zhao

Being a woman in politics is always an issue. Reporters have to muse over it, pundits have to ponder the implications, and voters are left with a lot of doubt in their minds, not because there is actually something wrong with the woman, but simply because she is a woman.

As soon as a woman announces her intention to run for public office, two questions immediately pop up: is she capable of performing the duties demanded by the office and will she, as a woman, command the necessary respect from her peers and international leaders? To be fair, the first question applies to men as well. Anyone of either gender will, or should, have their abilities scrutinized.

The second question though, is fairly unique to women. In much of the world, still, women are not regarded to be the intellectual equals of men. Much thinking revolves around the assumption that women are frail and cannot grasp the intricacies of many real world problems. As a result, women are granted fewer rights and have come to be forced to live under stringent rules designed by men. With a good portion of the world thinking this way, a woman running for a national office naturally makes people worry about how much respect, and thus power, she will command when facing leaders of other countries. Even in her own office in this country, which we would like to believe is far more progressive on the issue of gender equality, the woman will always be viewed by her peers in such a way that her gender is almost certainly foremost in their minds, whether consciously or unconsciously. A man in the same position would be viewed as just another politician, but a woman would be viewed as “another politician, but one who is a female.”

A woman in a high power political position, unlike a man, has to worry about whether she was actually intended to be there. Women who serve as advisors, consultants, and members of the cabinet always have to wonder whether they are the token female. In 1992, when President George H.W. Bush announced his reelection team, a group photo of the core team was released. The photo was all-male with one lone female standing front and center. That woman was Mary Matalin, the deputy campaign manager for political operations. While that is an important job, the occupier of the said position is usually not included in the photograph. So, why was Mary Matalin placed front and center? Take a wild guess. A president or a candidate running for president would be absolutely crazy or suicidal to have an all-male cabinet or team of advisors. Thus, the Condoleezza Rices or Elaine Chaos of the world have to worry about something that never even crosses the minds of the Donald Rumsfelds and John Snows.

With all the speculation surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton -- Will she run for president? Will Kerry pick her as a running mate? -- the question of whether we, as a country, are ready for a female president or vice president begs to be asked.

First, the general consensus seems to be that HIllary Clinton will run for president in 2008 if Kerry is not elected. In four short years, how will this country react to a woman running for the highest office of the land? Sadly, the conversation will almost certainly be dominated by the issue of her gender. It would certainly be nice to think that we would be able to look beyond that and have a serious discussion of the real issues. There will be those who would not vote for her because she is a woman and equally unfortunately, there will be those who do vote for her, but only because she would be the first female president.

The same pertains to if Kerry picks Clinton to be his running mate. Before anyone brings this up, yes, I know that for numerous reasons which I will not discuss here, the actual chance of Kerry doing such a thing is very slim and that the chance of Clinton accepting such an offer is even slimmer. But let’s pretend that there are no peripheral issues about Clinton wanting to run for president herself and that she has as good a chance as Edwards or Gephardt or anyone else of being on the ticket. So what would happen? The attention would be even greater than when Al Gore picked Jewish politician Joseph Lieberman as his running mate.

In 1984, Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro, a Congresswoman from New York, as his running mate. Losing in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, Mondale and Ferraro won only the state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Granted, Mondale never had that great of a chance of winning the election in the first place, but it would still not be ridiculous to argue to that the fact that Ferraro was a woman had something to do with his loss.

The only way to change the public unease with a woman running for president or vice president is to have more women running for those positions. As of now, it remains a novelty. No woman has seriously been considered for president and Geraldine Ferraro has been the only serious vice presidential candidate. If we have enough precedent though, people will view such an occurrence as only natural, just as how when John Kerry became the presumed Democratic nominee, nobody gasped that he was in fact a man.