Our class readings inspired me to analyze the role of female politicians through a rhetorical lens. Interestingly, Sutherland and Sutcliffe (1999) found that the rhetorical tradition developed into a much narrower meaning throughout the centuries, one which “confined it to the public discourse of men of the ruling class.” (p. 10). This phenomenon is still alive today in the role and image of 21st century female politicians.
The First Lady ultimately set the stage for women in the public sphere, as they took on the role of compassionate supporters and motherly figures (Griswold, 2007). Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the public image of female politicians is influenced heavily by the idea that political rhetoric is primarily ‘masculine.’ Griswold (2007) explains that “a woman, unlike a man in politics, must balance addressing her gender with a masculine and powerful rhetoric. If a female politician upsets the balance by coming across as too forceful, then she in untrustworthy, and in contrast, if she is too ‘feminine’ then she is deemed unfit to lead” (p. 3). Although female politicians have come a long way, media coverage reveals that lingering sexism towards female candidates is still very prevalent.
Sarah Palin is arguably the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. Throughout her political campaign, news sources emphasized her physical appearance and publicized her past participation in beauty pageants. The media used Palin’s former pageant career to dismiss her as a serious candidate with news anchors referring to her as the following: “The race for the U.S. presidency is not just one more beauty contest,” “Caribou Barbie,” “Presidential Barbie” and “Malibu Barbie” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009, p. 330 – 331). The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to discredit her political agenda and view her as incompetent.
On the other hand, Hilary Clinton executed a much more mature and commanding image to the public. However, her sometimes “intimidating nature” and decision to pursue a more dominating leadership style was seen as fair game to many media outlets. She was often identified in the media as not being ‘feminine’ enough with headlines identifying her as “calculating,” “overly ambitious,” “cold,” “scary” and “intimidating” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009). The media often criticized her attempt to assert a traditionally ‘masculine’ rhetoric and viewed her husband, Bill Clinton, as a source of necessary aid and strength.
In Canadian politics, this issue was brought to life after two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against two of their Liberal counterparts. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric surrounding this case is largely focused on the fact that Parliament doesn’t have a formal process to deal with these types of allegations. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a new policy to deal with harassment issues, but the fact that there wasn’t one already in place is extremely troubling (to say the least). Canadian Parliament seems to be living in another decade when it comes to the treatment of female staff and officials in the workplace. Despite the bickering and finger–pointing between the New Democrats and the Liberals, Canadians are expecting more from all members of Parliament and want to see action and change so that future issues of harassment are properly addressed.
After diving deeper into the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton and Canada’s recent harassment issue at Parliament Hill, it is clear that female politicians are continuously struggling to fit into a public sphere that the media and public deem as ‘masculine.’ To move beyond this issue, future political leaders need to openly discuss issues of sexism and harassment, as well as adopt a rhetoric that is neither defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ It is also crucial that journalists, PR professionals, members of the public and politicians hold the media accountable for acts of sexism against female (or male) politicians. It will be interesting to see where the future of politics goes and if it is possible to create a gender-neutral public sphere for political debate and societal change.
Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts.
Griswold, D. (2007). The politics of speech: engendering the public sphere. Retrieved from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Sutherland, C. M. & Sutcliffe, R. J. (1999). The Changing Tradition: Women in the History of Rhetoric. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
Winfrey, K. L. & Carlin, D. B. (2009). Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage. Communications Studies, 60, 326-343.