What has been the ugliest lesson of the current campaign? That it remains nearly impossible for a woman to run for president or vice president. Is it sexism? Not exactly. Certainly the voting public claims they are not sexist. Don’t most polls show that over 90 percent of Americans say they would be ready to elect a woman of their party president?
Rather, the barrier is how the press filters and distorts a woman’s candidacy, making her far more vulnerable than any man to appraisal and criticism on so many levels.
What I’ll call “pressexism” is an inordinate focus on a female candidate’s looks, her family life, the way she speaks, her emotional makeup, and, yes, her clothes. In this telegenic age, if a female candidate is unattractive, it’s a very big problem. But interestingly enough, if a candidate is very attractive, it turns out to be just as big a problem: It becomes the easiest way not to take her seriously.
When the press have a woman in their view-finder, they tend to completely ignore the personality, the background, the style of the male candidates in the same election. Didn’t that happen when Hillary was competing with Obama? Without Palin to concentrate on, wouldn’t there have been far more commentary on Obama’s somewhat-chilly personality? Certainly his languid haughtiness would have been noticed and mentioned, possibly relentlessly. When Bush was competing with Gore, didn’t Gore receive a constant personality analysis from the press?
Whether or not it is important, there might have also been a lot more in-depth examination of Obama’s exotic background. Without Palin to criticize, wouldn’t there have been more media shock and dismay over Biden’s frequent foot-in-the-mouth goofs? Looking back to last fall and winter, while Obama was praised for his ideas, Hillary got a lot more press battering for her wonk-ish personality, her coolness, and her hectoring style of speech than for any of her policies.
Part of the reason for the new “pressexism” is, of course, the nature of media today. For the past decade and a half, the press has been focused on entertaining human-interest stories. With so many hours to fill, the 24/7 news cycle needs to devote lots of time to the softer side. A female candidate, just because she is a woman, from her Naughty Monkey heels up, supplies more possibilities. Let’s face it: Most journalist can’t really analyze the ramifications of either candidate’s health plan. They don’t really know what to do about Iran either. But every blogger or commentator can make an easy joke about Palin’s rimless specs.
In fairness, Hillary, with her well-publicized marital ups-and-downs and her attention-seeking spouse, and Sarah, with her special-needs baby and a pregnant teenage daughter, are women whose personal lives one wants to talk about around the water cooler. So maybe that’s been part of the problem, too. The women who reach high are often complex. But the media seems to always concentrate on their vulnerabilities rather than acknowledging their strengths or capabilities.
The election hasn’t taken place yet, but one can wonder how a woman can ever succeed in breaking through that highest of glass ceilings in the midst of this “pressexism.” I think an American Margaret Thatcher type, attractive but not too attractive, with a bland personal life and very strong policy ideas, might be a possibility. If she exists. And if there is no one who could imitate her for big laughs on Saturday Night Live.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.