So there’s been a lot of Weinergate talk. A LOT. On the heels of Schwarzenegger’s infidelity, Congressman Anthony Weiner shocked many with his oh so charming penis bulge photos…especially since he’s married to the fab Huma Abedin (and no, douchebag Chris Matthews, it is NOT her fault)…who’s now pregnant. The controversy raises compelling questions surrounding consent and betrayal. But to me, one of the more interesting issues that’s surfaced involves women in political office or rather how female politicians don’t engage in sex scandals.
When it comes to sex scandals, quite often there’s a power dynamic at play. The double standard exists that men in positions of power exude sexiness while powerful women pose a threat (ugh, can’t powerful women catch a break?!). As Lane Wallace in The Atlantic wrote:
“Because (and again, this is a general trend, there are always exceptions), we don’t see competence and power as sexy in a woman. If anything, they’re threatening…Is that image changing? Of course it is. More and more men are waking up to the benefits and appeal of a smart, competent, independent and powerful woman. But as a culture, what makes a woman appealing is still her looks, not her power.”
Wallace goes on to assert that another reason for so many sex scandals consists of a “sense of entitlement” some men feel about receiving sex once they’ve “achieved power.”
While there are some women who’ve been embroiled in public infidelity, compared to men, the numbers remain scarce. Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in The New York Times about women, men and political scandals:
“Female politicians rarely get caught up in sex scandals. Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soulmates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John); or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace.
“It would be easy to file this under the category of “men behaving badly,” to dismiss it as a testosterone-induced, hard-wired connection between sex and power (powerful men attract women, powerful women repel men). And some might conclude that busy working women don’t have time to cheat…
“But there may be something else at work: Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for office. Women have different reasons for running, are more reluctant to do so and, because there are so few of them in politics, are acutely aware of the scrutiny they draw — all of which seems to lead to differences in the way they handle their jobs once elected.”
And Stolberg’s right; there IS a gender gap in politics. A big one. Far less women run for office than men. In 2011, only 16.6% of women serve in Congress and only 17% of women serve in the Senate. At the state level, only 23.5% of legislators are women and only 21.8% of women hold elective executive positions, including only 6 female governors. When you look at the numbers for women of color, only 27% of the 16.6% who serve in Congress are women of color with no women of color in the Senate. Amongst statewide politicians, 20% of the women serving as state legislators and 15.9% of those serving in statewide elective executive positions are women of color. Going beyond politics, women still only earn 78 cents for every dollar a man makes and comprise only 16% of Fortune 500 board seats.
For women who do run for office and win, their constituents hold them to a higher standard; they expect more from them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as women are usually held to a higher standard not just in politics, but in all career fields as well as society in general. Women are no more moral than men. Rather they are punished more harshly for their transgressions.
One of the programs I work on at my paid job is a program to train women to run for political office. Many women are reticent to run not because of the long hours and not because they’re not committed to a cause. Many of our political trainers and elected officials say that women need to be asked to run as they often perceive that they need more training, more experience, regardless of their actual qualifications. Additionally, women worry about fundraising (many women have no problem asking for money as activists yet have trouble when it comes to asking for money for themselves) and facing media scrutiny, including sexism.
During the 2008 presidential election, journalists and media pundits launched a litany of sexist comments on both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Now Los Angeles City Councillor Janice Hahn, who’s running for a congressional seat, faces a sexist and racist ad (gotta love that double whammy) from an asshole conservative group depicting her as a stripper supporting gun-toting gang members. Lovely. In addition to the sheer stupidity of misogyny, the perceived obstacles women contend with in running for office stem from putting enormous pressure on women to attain perfection, to be everything to everyone.
We need more women in positions of power. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has recently launched her project Off the Sidelines to spur women to get involved in the political process. According to its website:
“More women must get off the sidelines and make a difference in their community. Whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, Congress or at home, it’s crucial that more women adopt this philosophy to affect change in ways both big and small. Because if they don’t, decisions will be made without them that they won’t like the outcome of. Women have the power to shape the future, it’s just a matter of getting off the sidelines and getting involved.”
In its 3-minute video, Gillibrand asserts that:
“The women’s movement in this country is stalled.”
Gillibrand said in an interview:
“One of my biggest worries right now is too many women are sitting on the sidelines – they’re not engaged, they’re not interested, they don’t want their voices to be heard – they think their voices don’t matter, they think their vote doesn’t count.”
I met Senator Gillibrand at a fundraiser which I attended through my job. She immediately struck me with her kindness, tenacity, passion and her grounded nature. She possesses a mixture of liberal social views with seemingly conservative ones; a staunch advocate of reproductive rights, equal pay for women, LGBTQ rights yet gun owners’ rights. We do need more women in political office and this could be a great program to help make that happen.
While I admire and respect Senator Gillibrand, as the kick-ass Vanessa Valenti, Editor at Feministing, pointed out, her comments seem to ignore the valiant efforts of numerous women already out there making a difference. Women ARE raising their voices. Women ARE engaged speaking out against sexist and misogynist legislation; the numerous Walks for Choice, SlutWalks, Planned Parenthood rallies and feminist blogs are a testament to all of the activists out there. Women spanning generations protest for abortion access, volunteer for get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns and serve on school boards. No one is going to hand you power or grant you rights, you must speak up and fight for your rights. But to pretend women aren’t involved ignores reality.
We need even more women to run for office, advocating for greater equity. Now, some believe that we need more women to run for office because women are more compassionate, less corrupt and make better listeners. Nonsense. Women don’t possess a purer morality than men; having more women in political office won’t necessarily curb sex scandals. But women must fight harder to prove themselves and their worth, due to their small numbers and societal expectations. Female politicians submit more legislation and tend to advocate more for education and healthcare. They see the world from a different vantage point than men. When women sit at the table of the decision-making process, a greater diversity of voices and perspectives are heard. And that is the reason we should achieve gender parity; it helps us all. As Hillary Clinton once said, gender equality is not only the fair thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.