Sure, I am a strong, independent woman, someone who's been working since my teen years, and doing chores long before that. I don't ask for any favors because I'm a woman. But I have to admit, I'm not above using charm and a smile to clear those little daily hurdles. Rather than see it as a contradiction between my actions and ideals, it's just the way the world works, like it or not.
So I don't hold it against female politicians who say gender doesn't matter while taking the stage in fashion-conscious mufti. They know the rules: No one will listen to what a woman is saying if her slip is showing.
That said, keeping track of the mixed messages coming from a new and touted crop of office holders is a full-time job. In one sentence, "judge me by the same standard" morphs into "juggling the duties of a wife and mom should earn me a thumb on the scale."
"Women have to earn the respect," said Fallin, though she used her two children and four stepchildren to trump her childless female opponent in a debate. It's a clever way to juggle a tough, yet tender persona and – at the same time -- raise doubts about your rival's homemaking bona fides.
From my base in Charlotte, N.C., I got the chance to observe Haley's masterful balancing act. She fought charges of infidelity by denying then ignoring them, and her hanging tough earned respect. At the same time, her ads emphasized faith and family, a devoted husband and two children.
Not that being a woman is a reliable advantage. In the last election, male politicians found success using negative images for strong women that have been around forever. Nancy Pelosi's
critics weren't satisfied with criticizing her policies; ads made her the Wicked Witch of the West and an actual monster.
Unfortunately, issues are too often lost in the gender game-playing, including the ones focused on the rights of women and children. Equal pay, health care, child services? Why talk about that when you can tell your opponent to "man up,"
a go-to charge women of both parties realized was one that a guy could not answer without looking weak, rude or sexist.
A Newsweek article, "Will the 'Mama Grizzlies' Really Protect America's Kids?"
that actually examined where several female candidates stood found that South Carolina's Haley has taken "special aim at CHIP, a federal program aimed at helping low-income kids get health insurance," and in 2007 "voted against a measure that would have created a kindergarten program for at-risk kids."
But then, why would voters expect anything except political philosophy to affect the beliefs of any female office holder, whether Democrat or Republican? Maybe because society still hasn't figured out what it wants from its powerful women. Think back to the innuendo the Supreme Court's Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had to endure about their unmarried, childless status – and cringe.
For now, women in politics have to walk a tightrope – in tasteful, yet sexy, high heels. In work and in life, all women have to play and be judged by the same set of rules as men – except when we don't.