Madeleine Kunin, former Governor of Vermont and author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, had a conversation with Free Vermont Radio just before the election about the unique challenges women leaders face (Sarah Palin included).
She also discussed how she made the adjustment from a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter to an energized Barack Obama backer, and gave the Republicans credit for putting together their own historic ticket.
Here’s a snippet of dialoge from the interview:
FVR: What do you make of Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska?
MK: She was a surprise, needless to say, when she emerged, and I think the immediate reaction was very favorable. It certainly energized the McCain campaign, she’s attractive, she’s got … a great story coming from Alaska. But I think as time went on, more and more people asked the fundamental question that’s asked of women, and men, is, is she qualified to be Vice President, and, if need be, President? And so I think her popularity has declined, and while at first she was an asset to McCain because … she still attracts huge turnouts at rallies, many people now think she may in fact now be a liability. But, I have to add a “but,” because she’s still out there, and she is the first Republican woman to be on a national ticket, and what we have to begin to understand is that as all male candidates are not alike, all female candidates are not going to be alike, and there is room for conservative women candidates. But I think what happened in this case is that there was almost a sense of exploitation, that, “well, we’re going to get the women’s vote, and we’re going to get all those disgruntled Hillary supporters ’cause we have a woman on the ticket.” And of course you know women are pretty smart in making their own decisions. They’re not going to vote for a woman simply because there’s a woman on the ticket. But having said that, I think the Republican party does deserve some credit for having put a woman on the ticket. And while Hillary Clinton is a very different kind of politician, and nobody asked, ever, whether she was qualified, because she did work her way up the system and proved that she had the intelligence and stamina to do the job, both Hillary and Sarah Palin are new role models for women all over America. And one thing Sarah Palin has done, which I find very interesting, she’s been able to bring her children onstage. Now, that always has been considered … dangerous territory for women. If you have all your kids and they’re in the limelight, somebody asks, well, while you’re campaigning, who’s taking care of the kids? And that was something I was sensitive to, and especially people of my generation. So, these are very interesting times, but one of the reasons I wrote this book is that, despite these new role models of people like Nancy Pelosi, the United States lags way behind other countries in the number of women we have in political office.
MK: [O]ne of the interesting things that happens to women at the top of the ticket … the top of the pyramid, whether it’s in politics, or in the corporate world, or in other leadership positions, is very often women find themselves in something called the “double bind.” This has been studied, and an organization called Catalyst, which places women in top corporate positions, has called it “damned if you do and doomed if you don’t.” And Hillary found herself in that position. The double bind is, you have to be tough as a man. You have to prove you’re tough enough to do the job to be commander in chief. But on the other hand, you have to be soft enough, feminine enough to be liked. And Hillary met the toughness test, ’cause people, according to the polls, thought she could be commander in chief. But then she sort of fell off on the other side, where people said, well, she’s cold, she’s distant, she’s too much of a policy wonk. Now Sarah Palin is also facing that, but in a very different way. I mean, she’s got the toughness test, where—the Alaska bit, and shooting wolves from helicopters, and—
FVR: She’s sewn that one up, huh?
MK: She’s sewn that one up, and actually she has more support amongst men now than she does amongst women. And she has the softness side, with her family, and her attractiveness as a person. But, of course, that double-bind isn’t everything, because, as I mentioned earlier, people are still going to ask, is this person capable of doing the job? And Hillary clearly was by so many people. But there’s been a lot of talk about the disappointed Hillary voters, “Are they going to support Barack Obama?” As we chatted earlier, it didn’t take very long for me to make the adjustment, because I know how much is at stake.