Is the number of women in politics growing? It's the type of question news talk-show hosts are asking now, thanks to competitive election races in states such as Delaware, Nevada, and California, where women are serious contenders in elections taking place next Tuesday.
Republican candidate Sharron Angle isn't pulling her punches in Nevada, currently running in a tight race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Angle told Reid to " man up" in a recent debate, pushing him on issues such as health care and unemployment. Reid called Angle "extreme" in response, wisely steering clear of any gender-related advice. Vice President Joe Biden didn't fare so well later in the week, lumping together two very different—and, according to him, "extreme"—female candidates as "these women."
The other woman was Christine O'Donnell, Republican Senate candidate in Delaware. Reminiscent of Sarah Palin, who endorsed her, O'Donnell is the type of woman who has many fellow conservatives racing to disassociate themselves. O'Donnell hits a lot of strong points and is an outspoken Christian. But she also has made flamboyant statements—about witchcraft, masturbation, teaching evolution in schools, and the separation of church and state—that have raised eyebrows and set off "airhead" alerts across media. O'Donnell, like Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), also has been noted for wearing pearls and peep-toed shoes and the color of her toenails. It seems that an emphasis on fashion accompanies female candidates who don't fit the mold of the traditional political candidate.
Hair became a talking point in California's Senate race, which happens to be between two women: incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina was caught on microphone criticizing Boxer's hair. The incident was blown up into a "cat fight," which seems out of proportion to the level of impropriety involved, and more a result of how unusual it still is for two strong female candidates to compete. Beyond hair, the two women hold deep differences of opinion, particularly on off-shore oil drilling and Proposition 8. (Boxer supported the ruling overturning California voters' decision to ban gay marriage, while Fiorina disagreed.)
But at least nobody was called a "whore"—a term thrown around in reference to Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for governor in California, in a taped conversation between her Democratic competitor and his staff. Shockingly, the National Organization of Women's California branch defended the word choice rather than the woman.
Media lightning rod Sarah Palin looms over this year's elections, supporting Angle in Nevada along with other preferred candidates, both male and female, across the country. Some have wondered if Palin's media presence in this year's race has brought more attention to women in politics. Yet the trend is not really new: In the past decade alone, women held two of the most powerful positions in the world, with Condoleezza Rice and then Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Interestingly enough, despite the number of high-profile Republican women running this year, the upcoming midterm election will mean a net loss of women in Congress with many Democratic women currently in office—several in senior positions—considered vulnerable.
Whether or not women-in-politics is a growing trend, I like that more female candidates are capturing our attention, and I hope having women in political positions is leading more female citizens to go out and vote. To me, it's not about more women breaking into the good-old-boy realm of politics (though there is some of that going on) as much as pulling politics out of the backseat of our celebrity-obsessed society. I don't know why it seems like conservative women are more comfortable these days being both outspoken women and outspoken candidates. Palin made enemies for her personality alone, pushing her Alaskan mommy-ness on the American public. But she does seem to be paving the way for female candidates who can disregard old anxieties about androgynous politics.
If more women are going to get into politics—which I believe it's a good thing—then I'm all for embracing their femininity. God created men and women differently, and, as I can personally attest, women hold political stances just as firmly as men, regardless of whether they also paint their toenails (O'Donnell) or drive a truck (Fiorina).
Voter turnout in the U.S. usually tops out at about 60 percent. I hope more people—especially more women—pay attention to the elections this year. If taking time to look up a candidate's record starts with Googling a hairstyle or a Cosmopolitan spread (e.g., Senator Scott Brown, because men are also capable of surprising us), that's just fine with me.