Women In Politics: A Catch-22

With the mid-term elections firmly in the rearview mirror, all political eyes have turned toward the next major event–the 2016 Presidential Election. More than ever before, the list of potential candidates for both parties includes multiple women. For the Democrats, top names include US Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), and former Secretary of State, US Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton. For the Republicans, the potential nominees include South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, and Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez-though Martinez has been mentioned more often as a potential VP nominee.

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Can we please stop talking about Hillary’s pantsuits? Men wear suits all the time and nobody cares.

As a woman, it is exciting to see myself represented in the field of candidates. At the same time, I’ve been wondering for months how things will play out given this influx of women in the race. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about debates, one of my favorite parts of the election cycle. I really enjoy seeing the candidates go toe-to-toe on the issues and hearing their thoughts in a more spontaneous way than we hear them in stump speeches. Personally, I like it when candidates are bold and speak directly to one another, challenging each other in a battle of wits and ideas. Still I wondered, if a male candidate comes out swinging against a female candidate, will the media cry foul? Will the female candidate be portrayed as the victim of a male bully, in a way that male candidates are not? By the same turn, what if a female candidate goes on the attack? Will she be criticized, as Hillary Clinton often was in 2008, of being “shrill” and “histrionic”, in a way men are rarely described? Being taken seriously in politics sometimes feels like a war female candidates cannot win.

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This past week an episode of Parks and Rec perfectly encapsulated what it is to be a woman in politics. Leslie Knope, she who has fought her way up the ranks of local city government to a prime spot in the US National Parks Service, has found herself in a supporting role as her husband Ben Wyatt runs for Congress. While Ben is the candidate, Leslie is the one who finds herself in the hot seat. Candidates’ wives are expected to participate in a contest called the Pie Mary, where they each contribute a homemade pie. I’d like to say this is just a silly TV invention, but for the fact that as recently as the last election, the dueling First Ladies were still competing for the best cookie recipe in the nation. (For the record, Mrs. Obama’s dark-and-white-chocolate chip cookies beat Mrs. Romney’s M&M cookies.)


Leslie, as passionate a feminist as ever you will meet, initially rejected the idea of a pie bake-off, considering it sexist, antiquated and just plain silly. While a local chapter of the Indiana Organization of Women (IOW) praises Leslie’s decision, the media rips her to shreds. As one reporter asks, “Leslie, you made it pretty clear you don’t think homemaking is important. Do you ever cook for your children, and who’s even watching your children right now?” When Leslie tries to defend herself, the reporter accuses her of “getting emotional”. Later, the same reporter states, “We all know what Ben Wyatt’s wife is really saying. By skipping the Pie Mary, she’s saying that women who love their families are stupid.” The rival candidate’s wife piles on: “Ms. Knope chose to try to have it all. I chose to put my family first.”

Leslie decides to enter the Pie Mary, hoping to defuse the situation and put the focus back on her husband’s campaign. Of course, this backfires. While traditionalists were thrilled that she acquiesced, the Indiana Organization of Women was outraged that she would give in to the “retrogressive, misogynistic” pie baking event. Ultimately, Ben enters the pie contest instead as an attempt to sidestep the controversy. This doesn’t work, and a panel including the group Women Against Feminism, the Indiana Organization of Women, and The Male Men–a meninist organization–discuss Leslie’s flaws on a local television show. Ben’s campaign manager asks him and Leslie to make a statement of apology to which Ben responds, “Apologize for what?” Apologize for what, indeed.

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Image by Nivea Serraeo

While the show is part sitcom, part satire, it is one hundred percent dead-on when it addresses women’s issues (Buzzfeed captures this week’s highlights here) and points out the absurdity of asking women questions about such things as their hairstyles or wardrobes, the idea of ‘having it all’, whether they miss their kids when they go to work, and how they balance marriage, career and family–questions male candidates never encounter on the campaign trail. Knope sums it up best when she says, “If you want to bake a pie, that’s great, if you want to have a career, that’s great too, do both, or neither, doesn’t matter, just don’t judge what someone else has decided to do. We’re all just trying to find the right path for us, as individuals, on this earth.”