By Kate Aoki
Election time, in any country, highlights the extent to which candidates for office live up to the ideals of their party. Indeed, an interesting contradiction has emerged throughout the 2012 Republican primaries between the professed ideals of the GOP and the actual pasts of certain candidates. Despite their previous extramarital affairs, both Cain and Gingrich survived, at least for a while, on the national political scene as potential Republican candidates for president. Though Cain dropped out of the race in early December, Gingrich went on to win the primaries in South Carolina and later in Georgia. Why would members of a party that champions traditional, monogamous marriage support a man who has been married three times while maintaining or hoping to maintain extramarital exploits?
According to Victoria Wenger ’14, student chair of the Women’s Initiative in Leadership at the Institute of Politics, there is a level of cognitive dissonance among Republican voters that has led to a prioritization of political issues that ranks male representatives’ treatment of women below other prominent concerns. In the 2012 primaries, Cain and Gingrich may have been seen as viable candidates despite their personal shortcomings because they promised the Republican base they were more “severely conservative” than Romney.
To be sure, candidates are people and people make mistakes, and not all aspects of a candidate’s private life necessarily reflect his or her ability to lead. At the same time, politicians’ private choices do, to a certain extent, reflect their values and the manner in which they will act on those values. When considering male politicians, the public is often overly willing to discount their personal lives.
On the other hand, when considering female politicians, the public has trouble looking beyond personal matters. Shauna Shames ’01, a current PhD student in government and the former Research Director for The White House Project, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in business and politics, has written extensively on this phenomenon. While voters are willing to excuse discrepancies between male politician’s public personas and private choices, voters heavily scrutinize female politicians’ private lives, even to the point of neglecting the content of their campaigns. Shames claims that this difference in judgment is rooted in divergent expectations for men and women in all aspects of professional life and helps to explain the underrepresentation of women in politics. Although many women think of feminism as “something my mother did,” there remains much progress to be made in terms of gender equity. Only 17% of representatives in Congress, 17.4% of mayors of cities with populations larger than 30,000, and 1/3 of Supreme Court justices are women.
This data can largely be explained, says Shames, by the fact that female professionals are expected to do most of the childcare and housework, which can make maintaining a political career unfeasible. According to Wenger, there is the “idea that women have to be 100% mother, 100% wife, 100% politician and civil servant, 100% of the time” and that failing in either of the first two roles indicates an inability to succeed in the third. As such, a political career is considered incompatible with good motherhood, since any time in the office or on the campaign trail is too much time away from children and home. Again, this reasoning is not applied to male politicians.
Even if a female politician is able to satisfy the demand that she be 100% everything, she must then, according to Shames, overcome the media and public’s tendency to judge her based on style instead of substance. Marie Wilson, author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World, goes so far as to declare “hair, hemlines, and husbands” the elements by which a female politician is evaluated. There is often a focus on wardrobe and hair styling, for instance, which distracts from the content of a female politician’s campaign.
Ultimately, there is a problem with how Americans choose their representatives, and this problem is partially a result of prejudices that run counter to fundamental American values. The media and public overemphasize the public lives of male politicians and overlook the negative implications of their private choices. At the same time, there is a constant struggle for female politicians to direct the focus away from irrelevant private matters and toward their public roles as candidates. In order for the American people to live up to the ideals of equality, democracy, and good government, voters need to be critical not only of their candidates but also of the reasoning behind their own judgments. Overemphasizing the private lives of female candidates endangers the integrity of the democratic system by unrightfully limiting an entire group’s access to politics. Both the right of candidates’ to fair consideration and right of the people to capable representatives would be better upheld if voters took a step back, reflected on their values, and critically evaluated whether they are acting upon their ideals in the voting booth.