'Mean Girls' or 'Sisterhood': The Politics of Women

Carly Fiorina's dig at Sen. Boxer has fanned debate about appearances.

June 14, 2010, 10:59 AM

June 14, 2010— -- It was a made-for-TV moment that wasn't intentionally made for TV -- Carly Fiorina, the GOP's rising star and newly minted candidate for the Senate ticket from California, caught on an open mic taking a dig at Sen. Barbara Boxer's hair.

"So yesterday," a laughing Fiorina said to an aide, before quickly realizing her big "oops" moment.

This is not the first time a politician has been caught on a hot mic and certainly not the worst thing that has been said. Remember Jesse Jackson saying he wanted to cut off a part of then candidate Obama's anatomy? Or President George W. Bush calling a New York Times reporter a "major league a**hole?"

But the fact that a female candidate criticized another female politician's appearance has opened up a Pandora's box of opinions on the "mean girls" debate and prompted the question, "Where is the sisterhood?"

"Women will continue to take two steps forward and three steps back until they drop the sorority girl act and become the stateswomen and leaders that we need," Nicole Wallace, a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign and former Bush administration official, wrote in a scathing article in the Daily Beast. "Fiorina's sarcastic 'diss' of her opponent's appearance may show why the presidency remains out of reach for the current crop of women candidates, at least for now."

But many women in politics argue that Fiorina's comments shouldn't be read into as more than an embarrassing moment. The spotlight her comment has garnered, said Ann Lewis, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, shows that women are still held to double standards compared to their male counterparts.

"Having first congratulated one other on a primary election in which higher number of women got nominated -- although we still have a ways to go -- we sort of immediately turned it into a high school yearbook contest," Ann Lewis, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, told ABCNews.com. "What's striking to me is that this is a standard that's being used for women candidates, not for the men. I have seen no columnist asking, now that he's a nominee, how does Rand Paul really feel about Mitch McConnell?"

The number of women holding public office is still relatively low, even though most voters are female. There are only six female governors at present. Of the House of Representatives' 435 members, only 76 are women and in the Senate, 17 of the 100 members are women.

But women are moving up to key positions, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California. And 2010 could be a record year for women office holders, especially Republicans, with big names on the ballot such as Fiorina, California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle.

"We really are in a new frontier in that we have record number of women running and a record number of women running against each other," said Karen O'Connor, a professor at American University and author of several books on women and politics.

With so many women in the political field, the days of candidates using gender as a tool in their campaigns are phasing out, some say.

"Very few candidates have made their gender a central part of their message," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "Both parties are becoming much more accustomed to female candidates... in higher office."

Simultaneously, there is less of a "sisterhood" aspect among women, and that is not surprising, experts say.

"For many people, sisterhood goes out the window when you're fighting to see whose going to get the most media coverage," O'Connor said. "As a result, they're in direct competition in terms of getting their messages out and having the public know more about them, so it's not surprising."

"I don't necessarily know how much people expect women across party lines, or running for different offices at the same time, to have all that much bonding," she added.

Even before Fiorina was caught on camera, much was made in the California press about her relationship and competitiveness with Whitman.

A Fiorina spokeswoman said the two plan to campaign together and are also friends.

Lewis said few people question how male candidates treat one another but when the candidates are female, the way they interact with each other is immediately under a harsh spotlight.

"They are held to a double standard, they not only have to be professional candidate, talk about issues, but they're going to get measured as how they get along with one other," Lewis said. "If candidates in the Senate got in based on how they got along with one another, I don't think the chamber would be empty but you would have a somewhat smaller set."

But it isn't all doom and gloom.

"Gender has not disappeared. The good news is it's an aspect, it's not a controversy," Lewis added.

Mean Girls Vs. Sisterhood: Appearances Still Matter

Women in politics may not be an idiosyncratic phenomenon anymore, but most women concur that appearances still do matter.

A Google search of any female candidate or public office holder inevitably turns up numerous postings -- depending on the woman's popularity -- about her fashion sense and appearance. It's a web phenomenon few male politicians face.

"Nobody covers the bad combovers and the beer bellies in Congress," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.

Susan Molinari, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from 1990 to 1997, said the pressure to look and act like men when she was in Congress was formidable, especially for young women like herself and those new to national politics.

"There was this pressure back in that day to cut your hair shorter, look more business-like, if you will," Molinari told ABCNews.com. "It's still there a little bit but you see women candidates with longer hair now, not in a business suit, and that's the way it should be."

"I think we have evolved to a place where women feel more comfortable being able to dress in ways they feel more comfortable."

In 2008, then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was always under scrutiny for her suits and hair style. Even today, the style and length of Clinton's hair is an ongoing phenomenon among bloggers.

Former GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin's style is also fodder for much consternation. In 2008, news of her eyebrow-raising clothing budget spread like wildfire on the Internet. Just recently, Palin caused a buzz with an image that sparked speculation about whether the former governor had breast implants. Palin cleared up the "Boob-gate" rumors on Fox News, clarifying that it's all natural.

"There's certainly a lot of coverage that women get, not about their policy positions, but about how they look or what they're wearing," O'Connor said. "Let's face it. The microscope on Hillary Clinton was very different than what we had on male candidates."

Conway feels that while the coverage of women candidates today is different, the media still falls back on covering women more for their fashion sense or who their spouse is and less on their achievements.

"For all the strides we've made as a nation, including electing our first black president, somehow it's still acceptable, if not High Five worthy, for the poison keyboards and the cable punditry to go straight after a woman in politics based on who her husband is, how she looks or what she's wearing," Conway said, adding that the coverage of Fiorina's gaffe has been overblown. "Part of that is women are relatively new to politics and people are figuring out how to cover them."

Molinari said the obsession with looks is likely to phase out but don't expect that to be any time soon.

"I think you have more and more women who are stepping up. It's like anything else -- the first women in science, the first women in law schools, the first women in politics, now it's the upper echelons of the government," Molinari said. "They're going to be studied a little bit more and every move they make will seem a bit more exciting, questionable, provocative and as people become more and more accepting that this is the way it's going to be, those issues die out."

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