BOSTON — Can anybody tell me what a gender card is anyway and where you buy one? After last week, I’m beginning to think that none of us is playing with a full deck.

Let me review the long, winding, XY-rated aftermath of the Oct. 30 debate in which most candidates focused their, um, attention on the front-runner. The Clinton folks had the gall to put up a video called “The Politics of Pile-On.” For revealing the hitherto unknown fact that Clinton’s opponents were all men, the campaign was accused of saying that the boys had ganged up on the girl.

That was followed by a campaign e-mail that called Hillary “one strong woman,” when everyone knows they should have called the senator “one strong person.”

Next Hillary went to Wellesley, and told the undergraduates that “this all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics.” She actually mentioned that presidential politics has been a male preserve. Has she no decency?

What ensued was a media-driven gender-fest in which Hillary was accused of playing “the gender card.” Not to mention the victim card. Not to mention trying to have “it” both ways.

Of course, Hillary never said — in Obama’s words — “don’t pick on me.” She even agreed that “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But she added, “I’m very much at home in the kitchen.” She mentioned the kitchen! Oooh, that cheater!

Up to now, this has been a remarkably degendered campaign. For once, the female candidate has been seen as the establishment candidate. She’s also been the tough guy in the race. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t noticed she’s a woman. Nor does the fact that she’s been pretty adept mean that women aren’t still in a double bind.

As a recent Catalyst survey of corporate leaders said, women are still “damned if they do and doomed if they don’t” meet the expectations of gender stereotypes. Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes the fate of achieving women this way: “Our image of a politician, a leader, a manager, anyone in authority, is still at odds with our expectations of a woman. To the extent that a woman is feminine, she’s seen as weak. To the extent that she puts it aside and is forceful, aggressive and decisive, she’s not seen as a good woman.” And now, anyone who complains about all that is playing the gender card. Should we call it a triple bind?

I am trying to remember whether any man has ever been accused of playing the gender card and what it looked like. Remember Ronald Reagan when he asked Walter Mondale to arm-wrestle? Remember the first George Bush when he told the longshoremen he’d “kicked a little ass” in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro? John Kerry in the brush shooting small birds? Arnold Schwarzenegger ridiculing “girlie men”? George W. in his flight gear? Rudy Giuliani cross-dressing? No, scratch that last one!

Appealing to masculinity is the pandering norm. But notice that 15 out of the 16 presidential candidates are male? Notice that 2 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are female? Notice that Hillary was the butt of half the late-night comedy jabs at the Democratic candidates? No fair! You’ve got that old gender card up your sleeve.

It’s now official. A woman can be accused of taking unfair tactical advantage of her disadvantage. Who made the rules of this game?

Peter Glick, a Lawrence University psychology professor, calls this the contemporary version of sexism, if we are still allowed to use that word. Men who would never say that women don’t belong in the workplace will say, “Women want it both ways. They want to be treated like a man but they can’t take it. They cry foul or discrimination.”

The end result is that a woman moving into the power structure is expected to behave as if it’s a fair and level playing field. Any woman who cries discrimination is likely to be decried as a whiner. And women cannot whine their way to the top.

So, these are the cards we’ve been dealt. “Having it both ways” is the flip side of the “double bind.” A woman can’t project herself as a strong leader and complain of mistreatment by men. Even if it’s true. Under these rules, women are often silenced. Especially from complaining about bias.

We have come all this way, and the woman who wants to get to the top is the one now required to be the strong, silent type. Do you ever get the feeling that the deck is still stacked?

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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