In light of this years primary election results, some may be tempted to call 2010 the political year of the woman. Don't be so sure.
The same week that saw the highly financed California primary wins of Carly Fiorina for a senate seat and Meg Whitman for governor, another story burst on the scene: speculation that Sarah Palin has gotten breast implants. "The White House or Bust," read one typical Internet headline.
Ladies, we have not come far enough.
Besides, by the time the last votes are tallied in November, gains in elected women may be a numerical wash. Fiorina, after all, is vying to unseat Barbara Boxer, a three-term U.S. Senator against whom the former Hewlett Packard CEO has a decent chance. And for all the buzz about the exciting high-profile candidates, less publicized races find women in trouble of losing their incumbent status.
Women are 90 of the 535 members of Congress, or 16.8 percent — hardly a representative statistical match for their numbers in the general population or in the workforce. Several more states may follow this year, but currently only six states have female governors. And only seven of the 100 largest cities have female mayors. And this is despite the fact that women registered voters outnumber men (by about 10 million in 2008) and more women have voted in presidential elections than men since 1964, according to the National Women's Political Caucus.
Also worth noting is Nikki Haley's good shot at becoming South Carolina's first female governor, despite the nasty ethnic slurs and sexual innuendos her opponents threw at her. Haley, of Indian descent, endured potshot allegations of extra-marital affairs and being called a "raghead" by a fellow Republican in the state senate. As one political watcher noted, the mere mention of an affair "sexualized" Haley's campaign in ways that typically harm a woman's candidacy more than they would a man's.
The nation has had just enough successful female leaders — think Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Kay Bailey Hutchison, among many others — that many of us have a skewed perspective of just how "equal" women really are to men politically.
Some female primary winners, such as Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate seat in Nevada, promise to do little to add to the credit of female intelligence in Washington. Angle hopes to take down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the general election and has backed away from her goofiest idea: reinstating prohibition. (Note to Angle, a fairly important city in your state runs national ads saying, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!") Yet she remains firm in her support for equally daffy ideas such as dismantling the Departments of Education and Energy.
Used to be, woman candidates, be they Democrats or Republicans, would make specific reference on the campaign trail to their gender and how it would be an asset in public office. Today, they're more likely to run more on faithfulness to their parties' agendas. How that shift will bode for gender-specific legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act remains to be seen.
The last bump upward in women elected officials was 1992, after the disturbing treatment of Anita Hill by many male senators during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Women tended to feel that their dignity generally had come under attack. A record 29 women filed for the U.S. Senate, and four won, joining one female incumbent. And 24 new women were elected to House seats, raising feminine presence there from 6 to 11 percent.
It's enough to make you wonder if takes such outrages to spur more women to run or to elect female candidates. I think not. In today's world, the most effective female candidates have to show voters the same traits as their male counterparts — the desire to serve and the firm evidence that they are qualified.
That's not to say we're past the age of offensive sexism in politics — we're not. We've come a long way since feminists were derided as being "bra-burners," yet today Palin, arguably one of the country's leading political personalities, is scrutinized physically because she appeared at the Belmont Stakes in a white T-shirt? Somehow, that doesn't feel like unqualified progress.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.