Where Are the 'Bad' Girls?: Why More Female Politcians Engaged in Scandal Might Be a Good Thing

If a female politician was caught photographing her pubic area and texting it to young men, would she still be a candidate?

This question, posed by Gloria Steinem at a recent screening of the film Lovelace, got me thinking. She is right. A female pol couldn't get away with the type of behavior we've seen from Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Gerry Studds, John Ensign, Barney Frank, Bill Clinton, David Vitter, and the countless male politicians who have been embroiled in sex scandals and lived to tell about it.

But I would go further than Steinem and suggest that until this happens, until female politicians are engaged in scandal to the same extent as men and treated equally when their indignities are revealed, we cannot claim to have achieved parity in politics.

Now I know what you're thinking: You want women to become entangled sex scandals? No, I don't want anyone -- male or female -- to engage in this behavior. But human nature being what it is, the truth is people -- both males and females -- do. According to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) a recent General Social Survey (GSS) shows that 15 percent of American wives and 21 percent of American husbands admit to cheating on their spouses. If the percentage of women admitting to this behavior has risen 40 percent over the last twenty years, why don't we see a similar increase when it comes to female politicians? Similarly, Professors Diane Kholos Wysocki and Cheryl D. Childers found that women are actually more likely to sext then men. According to their study, two-thirds of women engaged in this behavior versus about half of men.

We could point to countless other studies which show that both men and women in the "real world" (i.e non-political types) tend to engage in these types of behaviors. Why isn't this the case when it comes to politicians?

Statistics show there are more women serving in office today than at any time in American history. For the first time we have three women on the Supreme Court. And according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, women make up 20 percent of the U.S. Senate, 18 percent of the U.S. House, and 24 percent of state legislatures. And while we have yet to see a female president, women now hold 5 (or 10 percent) of the country's governorships.

Since more women are being elected to office, we would expect that they would also be increasingly embroiled in sex scandals, but this is not the case. According to Newsweek, of the 53 U.S. political sex scandals between 1976 and 2009, only one involved a female politician, Helen Chenoweth-Hage, a Republican congresswoman from Idaho. In short, according to this count women made up just 1.9 percent of sex scandals in this thirty-three year period. Why is this the case? Why are female politicians still so much less likely than male pols to engage in scandalous behavior?

This question has been asked repeatedly, but so far the answers havent been satisfying. Some, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Cokie Roberts, have suggested it is because working women are too busy to engage in this type of behavior. Are political women really that much busier than women working in other sectors? Others, such as anthropologist Helen Fisher, have suggested that it is because women are better at not getting caught And still others have suggested it is because women are more virtuous and enlightened than men.

As much as I would like to believe that these things are true -- we are busier, more clever, and virtuous -- none of these explanations hold up. They don't explain the discrepancy either between female and male politicians or female politicians versus women in the 'real (i.e. non-political) world'. The truth is, there is something else at play here, something else which explains why female pols are less likely to engage in this behavior -- plain, old-fashioned latent discrimination and inequity which is still pervasive in the political arena.

Research shows that not only do women and men still run for office for different reasons, but once there, women feel pressured to work that much harder to prove they are deserving. Sheryl Gay Stolberg quotes from a recent study which finds that female legislators in the House "introduce more bills, participate more vigorously in key legislative debates, and give more of the one-minute speeches that open each daily session." In short, since women are still "new" to politics female politicians are under pressure to prove that they are just as good, if not better, than the men. This stress to consistently prove that they are worthy means they will work harder and do more than their male colleagues who don't have this burden.

Couple this with what some researchers refer to as the 'Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect'. Like black players breaking into baseball, women pols have had to consistently work harder to "outperform" their peers and "be better than average to measure up." As a result, we find that those who succeed are usually "the most talented and hardworking." In short, women entering politics still find an arena in which latent discrimination abounds. As a result, they are constantly forced to prove themselves and only the best, 'our model citizens' are generally able to survive and thrive. These women deserve great credit for their achievements, but they aren't representative of women generally because like it or not, as the data show, real women are flawed.

This is why I agree with those who say despite our growing numbers, we still haven't truly made it or broken through the 'political glass ceiling'. How will we know when we have? Forget the next proclamation that it's the 'year of the woman'. We will know we've made it when female politicians don't always have to be the 'good (or best) girls,' when they can be as flawed as their male counterparts, when they become embroiled in scandal to equal degrees as the men and are treated the same in the aftermath.

The 'good (or best) girl politician' notion is not only a sign that we still haven't made it, it sends a troubling message to young women everywhere. We should stop telling them that we aren't embroiled in scandal to the same degree as the men because we're busier, smarter, more virtuous or enlightened. Instead, let's tell them the truth -- it's because when you enter politics today you enter an arena that is still subject to latent gender discrimination. Telling them anything else sends them the wrong message. It says that only the 'good (or best) girls' need apply and that is detrimental to all of us, not to mention unfair. Yes we want great female politicians, but the women shouldn't be held to a higher standard of virtue or enlightenment than the men. If we continue to suggest otherwise, few young women will see themselves as capable of meeting this impossible standard and even fewer will choose to run.