In Politics, What Works For A Man Still Does Not Work For A Woman

I was a guest lecturer yesterday at an introductory class on Women's Studies on Women and Politics at the University of Vermont. After telling the students about my journey into politics and hoping to encourage them to think about running for office themselves one day, I asked how many of them had thought that they would get involved in politics. This was a seminar of about 18 students, all women, except for two men. One woman raised her hand and said, "I think I'd like to work behind the scenes. I wouldn't want to be the candidate. I tend to be sarcastic and I'm afraid people would think I was catty."

Hmmm? First, the professor and I both jumped on the word "catty." Why would she use this term that evokes such a strong gender stereotype? I pointed that out, but I also encouraged her. "It's great to work behind the scenes, and if you get involved in a campaign, you'll learn a lot and you might want to run yourself some day."

She did not buy into that. Then, the professor pointed out the writing on the t-shirt one of the men in the class was wearing. I hadn't bothered to try to decipher it from across the table.

It said, in bright yellow scraggly letters on a black background, "SARCASTIC, that's my strong point."


There it was. The point I had been trying to make, that there are still gender differences in how women and men approach political leadership was right in front of my eyes. (This was the same male student who asked the first question.)

She was afraid of being considered sarcastic and he flaunted it as an interesting or funny attention-getter. What works for a man, still does not work for a woman--both in terms of how they see themselves and how we see them.

I also noticed that women in the class were less inclined to speak up.

Another woman explained that it was so difficult for her to form her own opinions because there was so much information, and so many divided opinions. Her father thought one thing, her friends another, and she was caught in-between. I assured her that she was still in a formative stage, and college was a good time to explore and experiment with different beliefs. She still had time to form her opinions. I noted that perhaps people were more polarized today in their opinions than they were in my college days because the Internet and the traditional media go to extremes. There are not many moderates or consensus builders around, as we see by the behavior of the U.S. Congress.

Now, back to her discomfort with having to express opinions if she were to become political: I suspect very few men would confess to not having opinions, or better yet, would not be worried about their lack of strong opinions.

Many women do not want to venture out into the "opinion world" until they are certain of themselves, the facts, and that they are right. They are afraid of being shot down. The result is often silence.

To be political means to speak out, to risk being called "catty", or worse. I don't hear men worrying about whether they may be right or not. They enjoy the fight, whether it is with words or fists. Women still tend to shy away from controversy, to be uncomfortable with competition. Perhaps that is why only 17 percent of the members of Congress are female, and men are still largely running the country.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.