Running (For President) in Heels

You don't need a Y chromosome to run on the national ticket. Yet in 2008 Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both faced nasty personal criticisms that male candidates are usually spared. Now, after months of Michele Bachmann in the news, it's time to ask: Has anything changed for women in four years?

by Christina Bellantoni
Sarah Palin legs at Lancaster rally
Sarah Palin's legs were frequently photographed during the campaign. Here, she's standing next to John McCain (left) after a rally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2008.
Photograph: ©Brooks Kraft/Corbis

If female candidates have managed to destigmatize kids and clothing, does that mean they've also escaped the other forms of sexism? Well, no. In August 2011, just before Bachmann becomes the first woman in history to win the Ames Straw Poll, a British newspaper posts a photo online of her biting into a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. Her eyes are closed, her mouth is open; it's a terrible, sexualized image, and it ricochets around the digital globe at warp speed, thanks to tweets from liberal television anchor Keith Olbermann and actor Ashton Kutcher. Then the Washington Post illustrates a front-page story about Bachmann with a photo of her standing next to her husband, Marcus. A quick search of news sites shows there was no lack of pictures of Bachmann solo and triumphant. Nor was this a first for the Post; the editors ran a “couples” photo when Bachmann announced her candidacy. Post managing editor Liz Spayd tells me in an e-mail that the newspaper chose both photographs “because we thought they best captured the moment.” “I don't think there was anything sexist about it,” she wrote. “Bachmann very explicitly makes her husband a partner in the campaign, so it's easy to find visually moving images of the two of them.”

Bachmann has experienced more than her share of sexism, as have Clinton and Palin. What's different is her return lobs. Clinton responded to attacks with sharp counterattacks, not humor, and could come off as abrasive. After David Shuster, then an MSNBC news anchor, suggested in February 2008 that it was “unseemly” that Chelsea, who was calling superdelegates to make the case for electing her mom, was being “pimped out in some weird sort of way,” Clinton refused to pick up Shuster's apologetic phone call. He went on to declare on air that he was sorry for using “pejorative” language about Chelsea, but even after that, according to sources close to the situation, Clinton refused to speak with him directly.

Palin's responses to sexist slights have been equally fierce but much more public: She puts her own 250-mph spin on events for her 3.2 million fans on Facebook and her 675,000 Twitter followers. When Bristol was rumored to be creating drama on the set of Dancing with the Stars, Palin tweeted in her daughter's defense: “Ah yes … Bristol-the-diva! Silly critics! See her diva-ish-ness Sunday, Sarah Palin's Alaska 2 learn truth, before assuming. Thanks & enjoy!” Palin's aggressive responses didn't always pay off, however. John Coale, a prominent Washington fund raiser, Palin friend and supporter, told Time magazine in 2009 that “she made the mistake that every time someone attacked her, she'd fight back.” That attitude landed her in time-consuming public spats with the likes of David Letterman (who described Palin's look as “slutty flight attendant”) and Levi Johnston, Bristol's ex-boyfriend.

Bachmann, on the other hand, has a new “freedom” to call out “authentically sexist stuff,” says Traister, noting, “That's not the same thing as saying [sexism is] fixed; obviously it's not.” She points to the migraine-headache story—the one that says Bachmann suffers from pain so severe, she has to take medicine or be hospitalized. It's reminiscent of “the swooning woman on the fainting couch,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, senior fellow at the Barnard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy. “There you go again, talking about the weak woman with the headache. There's a space that's been opened for women to come up, but some things are still the same.” Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison brings up the migraine story as well. “If a man had migraine headaches, how would that be played?” Hutchison asks. “I don't think it would have been the same.”

First Published December 7, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


k groh09.02.2012

I'm a little confused about some of the statements in this article. Yes, I would certainly like to see more women in political power positions but, not posing as men! Women bring a more sensible, nurturing & negotiating attitude to the whole dynamic. Men are more warlike in their attitudes and I believe this is what has gotten our country and yes, the world, in the mess we're in. Women have a completely different dynamic - and, this needs to be nurtured. Our world has suffered enough wars, hunger & political pocket-packing - let's get back to basics & take care of the families & children - let's nurture people and get rid of the turf wars going on everywhere. Let's get rid of the attitude that in order to control people you have to rape them and behead and shoot them. Let's get a more feminine attitude towards power - not just inject more testosterone into the wound.

Gina Barreca08.09.2012

Interesting! I also want to point out that there are different consequences for male and female politicians when their actions, both in public and in private, are exposed.

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