Women and politics

I hadn’t heard of Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York, until recently. She was appointed to finish Hillary Clinton’s term in January 2009, when Clinton became Secretary of State. Gillibrand won the special election earlier this month, and she feels strongly that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed. She’s the youngest person elected to the U.S. Senate, and she’s a mother of two boys.

When I read a recent Vogue article about Gillibrand, I was struck by what she told an interviewer:

“Very few women want to be in a profession where you will have an opponent who says mean things about you every day, where the news may not be fair on a given day. It’s such an adversarial profession… Many women don’t want to expose their family or their children to something so rough and so aggressive and unfair and not honest.”

It illustrates an interesting difference between the baby-boomers and later generations. Although baby-boomers (my mother’s generation) and their parents (my grandmothers’ generation) paved the way for women to work outside the home, women in their 40s (and 30s and 20s) are still forging ahead in male-dominated areas today, including careers that aren’t conducive to having families. At some point, are all women faced with prioritizing their careers or their families? Or are women faced with that decision every day, after they get married or have kids?

In 2007, several traditionally male-dominated sectors (law enforcement, civil engineering) were seeing huge increases of women. CNN predicted by 2014, men would be about half the workforce. In February 2010 The New York Times reported the milestone had been reached, possibly due to the recession hitting male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, harder than industries women are more likely to work in, like health care and education. (Now that I think about it, my dentist and my doctor are women, as were most of my teachers until college.)

Politics is pretty much still a man’s world. Take a look at the U.S. Senate and the House — mostly middle-class white men. Gillibrand has a family history in New York politics. She knew how difficult politics would be, because she grew up with a political family.

I thought about the fine line women in politics (and probably any male-dominated profession) still walk, despite being about half of the workforce, and the majority on college campuses. Vogue focused on a PR rep’s take on the different standards for fashion in New York and Washington, DC. “You know, skirt length, heel height, cleavage. Let’s just say there are different . . . rules. Such a time warp in Washington.”

Are women judged more harshly than their male counterparts? During the last presidential campaign, no one commented on Obama’s or McCain’s suits. But Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all drew media attention for what they were wearing on the campaign trail.

So women have made impressive gains in the last 30 years, but, in politics at least, women are seemingly still held to a different standard than men. I wonder, is this true in every profession?

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