A New Kind of Toughness?

Ever since Sarah Palin captured the nation's attention with the juxtaposed images of her toting a baby and toting a hunting rifle, there has been a growing cadre of tough-as-nails women in our popular culture. We see it on the big screen in the popularity of Angelina Jolie's wild spy role in SALT, to the small screen's relentless marketing campaign for shows like Covert Action.

Whether large or small, these women resemble Superwoman only in their tolerance for pain, as they are catapulted off of moving trucks or thrown across rooms and emerge unscathed. They are tougher than any female superhero we have seen before, and far more complicated in their motives and their actions.

This phenomenon is also playing itself out in Steig Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy of books-cum-wildly successful films. The hero of this story is a survivor of sexual assault who does not need to be saved by anyone. She avenges a brutal rape herself in a way that is giving summer movie audiences the visceral experience of seeing a new kind of justice played out before them by a young woman.

Something is going on here. These films are showing women in a new light, but is this the case of art imitating life or vice versa? We've had Sandra Day O'Connor, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi's dogged determination to get the job done around for several years: all tough-as-nails women, inhabiting institutions as ceiling- and ground-breakers. But this year has given rise to a new type of female political candidate that mirrors the summer's screen heroines in audacity of tone, speech and point of view.

But all of these real-life women leaders have had to balance their "tough as nails" approach with, as Anna Quindlen puts it, a "warm as toast" demeanor. In 2002, The White House Project conducted a study, "Barriers and Opportunities" that affirmed Quindlen's assertion. By studying a large selection of the best campaign advertisements both the male and the female candidates had produced that season. Sure enough, the requirements of dress, language and content had to be shaped differently by women vying for executive leadership.

An ad that showed a woman telling a man to put on "his big boy pants" wouldn't pass muster in '05 and didn't this year for Karen Handel, the losing female candidate for governor of Georgia , even when Sarah Palin came in to give an assist.

Nonetheless, Palin, CA senate candidate Carly Fiorina, Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon, and the tea party girls could be tapping in to a new taste for a stronger blend of caring and toughness.

My concern is that while this new toughness may work to get people to the polls or to get audiences to the movies on opening weekend, what does it do to the way we legislate in this country? What does this attitude do to the spirit of bipartisanship we so desperately need in our legislatures?

From all my years of advocacy for women, I know one thing: unless we get tough on creating policies that allow women to fully participate in the public sphere, enough women will never reach their full potential in the workforce to make it normal for women to lead alongside men. And our country will miss out on the talent and resources of half our population at a time we most need them. We need superwomen and men to come up with a system that enables women to have the full range of work, health and economic options; beginning with a long overdue national comprehensive policy on childcare.

As we continue to push the envelope on what women leaders can look like, both in our culture and in the real-world, the spectrum of women in the culture is growing and changing. Balancing toughness and empathy has always been a slippery slope for women leaders to navigate. Stay tuned to this moving image of women in power to see if pushing these boundaries results in the policies that will benefit us all.