Why Obama Owes Women
BOSTON — On Tuesday, I got a sarcastic e-mail from a Hillary supporter. She forwarded a crack made by Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s media man, about Obama. “Senator Clinton,” he scoffed, “is not running on the strength of her rhetoric.” To which my friend added: “Unfortunately.”
By evening, the Wisconsin blowout was serious enough that the posters in last-chance Ohio read: “We’ve Got Your Back Hillary.” Clinton’s speech sounded ominously shopworn: “One of us is ready to be commander in chief. … One of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past.”
Indeed, her case for substance over style, for work over words, sounded worse when it was echoed that night by John McCain: “I will … make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change.”
These are disheartening days for Hillary supporters. Not just because of the string of losses but because of the kind of loss.
This was nothing if not a careful campaign. Neither the strategists nor the candidate had illusions about the hurdles that would face the first woman president in American history. They knew women have to prove and prove again their toughness. They knew women have to prove and prove again their experience.
They began as well by framing Clinton as the establishment candidate. But then the establishment became “the status quo” and the historic candidacy became “old politics.” She even got demerits for experience.
Something else happened along the way. If Hillary Clinton was the tough guy in the race, Barack Obama became the Oprah candidate. He was the quality circle man, the uniter-not-divider, the person who believes we can talk to anyone, even our enemies. He finely honed a language usually associated with women’s voices.
Does this transmutation resonate with women who have tried to become CEOs of lesser enterprises than America Inc.? Women of Hillary’s generation were taught to don power suits and use their shoulder pads to push open corporate doors. In the 1970s, the lessons on making it in a man’s world were essentially primers on how to behave like men. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Kathleen Dolan says, “They had to figure out a way to go undercover. They could only be taken seriously if they filled the male model with XX chromosomes.”
But the next generation of advice books urged women to do it their own way. The old stereotypes that defined women as more compassionate and collaborative were given a positive spin. They were framed and praised as women’s ways of leading.
Today’s shelves are still full of titles — from “Seducing the Boys Club” to “The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch)” to “Enlightened Power” — that tell us to act like a man or act like a woman. But in many ways, the transformative, inspirational, collaborative “female” style has become more attractive. Especially to a younger generation. And — here’s the rub — especially when it is modeled by a man.
Dolan sees Obama as “the embodiment of the gentle, collaborative style without threatening his masculine side.” But she adds, “He’s being more feminine than she can be. She is in a much tighter box.”
This too is a bit like what’s happened in business. Whatever advice they follow, women are still only 3 percent of the CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, it’s become more acceptable for a man to take an afternoon off to watch his kids play ball than for a woman.
Ilene Lang heads Catalyst, which surveyed more than 1,200 senior executives in the United States and Europe. This research calculated the tenacity of double binds and double standards. It showed how hard it still is for a woman to be seen as both competent and likable. And it led her to the conclusion that “What defines leadership to most people is one thing. It’s male.”
As for the Obama style? “Both men and women are much more likely to accept a collaborative style of leadership from men than from women. From women it seems too soft,” she adds ruefully.
Hillary was quite right that she needed to be seen as the experienced, competent, commander in chief. Obama was quite right about the country’s desire to reach across boundaries and beyond divisiveness.
We have ended up in a lopsided era of change. After all, how many of us wanted to see male leaders transformed from cowboys to conciliators? Now we see a woman running as the fighter and a man modeling a “woman’s way” of leading. We see a younger generation in particular inspired by ideas nurtured by women, as long as they are delivered in a baritone.
So, has the women’s movement made life easier? For another man?
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers GroupWait, before you go…
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