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Legacy Content / ON THE TRAIL

It's Still 1960 In Washington

Two Recent Stories Highlight The Double Standards That Persist For Women In Politics

November 17, 2009

My newest guilty pleasure is the AMC series "Mad Men." To justify my love for a show where women -- not to mention anyone else who isn't a white male -- are treated so poorly, I tell myself that: 1) the women are really the strong ones, leading both the men and the plot and; 2) the show takes place before the advent of feminism, the civil rights movement and no-smoking policies. This sort of stuff went out with drinking while pregnant and driving without seat belts. Or did it?

Two recent events, the decision by GOP state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to drop out of the race in N.Y.-23 and the debate over abortion funding in the health care bill, led to situations that felt more Betty Draper than Betty Friedan.

To be sure, the decision by Scozzafava to drop her bid -- and ultimately endorse the Democratic candidate -- just 72 hours before the election looked impetuous. She had been tanking the polls, and most of us had long since dismissed her odds of winning. Still, the move was out of the ordinary. The response from Karl Rove, however, was downright 1960. He told Fox News' "On the Record" that "you can understand this. Her feelings were hurt." Really? What's next -- someone wondering if "lady troubles" were responsible for her downfall?

 

When push came to shove, it was a woman, Pelosi, who was able to keep the pro-choice faction from revolting in the first place.

When Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz tracked her down the next week for a postmortem, he too spent a lot of time describing her emotional state. He noted that "violet semicircles hung below her teary eyes" and that in the run-up to her decision to drop out she and her husband sat silently in his car in front of a convenience story where "mostly, she just cried."

Scozzafava was most likely the source of the convenience store story. Still, it seemed to fit only too neatly into the narrative that had been constructed earlier: She was just too emotionally unstable to handle the pressures of a "big league" campaign. She wasn't a very strong candidate and ran a poor campaign, that much is true. But there are plenty of men and women who fit this category. Very few of us, guys or gals, are emotionally capable of handling the onslaught of attacks -- and the betrayals from onetime allies -- that Scozzafava experienced during the tight three-way race.

Democrats had their own intraparty fight the other week over abortion coverage in the health care bill, and the battle lines were decidedly gender-based. The fight to include restrictions in the House bill was led by two men, Bart Stupak of Michigan and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, while two women, Diana DeGette of Colorado and Louise Slaughter of New York, are now leading the charge to strip the abortion restrictions from the final bill. Furthermore, two women, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, were the first Senate candidates to say they'd vote against a Senate bill that included restrictions on abortion coverage.

For years, the goal of feminism was to get reproductive rights out of the realm of "women's issues" and into the category of "family issues." And many have wondered if EMILY's List, an organization dedicated solely to electing pro-choice Democratic women, has outlived its usefulness. After all, in an era that saw a woman come so close to being elected president, a women's-only group can sound as outdated as the three-martini lunch. Yet it was striking that on an issue as central to the Democratic party ideology as this one, it was up to women to define and defend it.

Also notable was the fact that on at least one occasion, the meeting between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and female abortion-rights lawmakers was described in the press as "emotional." Maybe I've missed it, but I don't think that fights over the many other contentious pieces of the health care bill have been described that way.

This isn't to say there aren't many men who are supportive of abortion rights or many women -- including Democrats -- who aren't. It is notable, however, that when push came to shove, it was a woman, Pelosi, who was able to keep the pro-choice faction from revolting in the first place.

The double standards women endured in the fictional Madison Avenue agency Sterling Cooper are fortunately out of favor. Even so, there are plenty still left in politics. And they don't discriminate by party.

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