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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

Women still viewed with a different lens

When the makers of Virginia Slims cigarettes tried to get more women to light up, they wrapped a marketing campaign around a slender, sassy, young model oozing confidence under the bravado banner, “You've come a long way, baby.”

It was enough to make grown women laboring for far less than their male counterparts and holding scant positions of power roll their eyes. But that ad was introduced way back in the bra-burning days of the mid-1960s.

Surely women have come a long way since then.

Surely you jest.

From where I sit in November, 2002, women may look smarter than their foremothers did 100 years ago, but appearances can be deceiving. Ask yourself how many women leaders your daughter - or son, for that matter - can easily recognize and respect in American life? Count the number of women wielding more clout than men in corporate or political venues at the dawn of the new millennium and the picture of how far women have come in terms of real leadership becomes painfully clear.

Still, every election year that produces a handful of women candidates winning House or Senate seats or seizing control of half a dozen state capitals as chief executive is quickly dubbed the new “year of the woman.” It's an almost patronizing phenomena that exults in the fact that - eureka! - the dames did it again. They actually pulled off a victory or two to increase their influence from pointless-periphery to marginal relevancy. Chalk up another year of the woman.

Pardon my cynicism. Of course women have withstood the rigors of politics to emerge as valued leaders in local, state, and national arenas. But women, unlike men running for office in America, are still seen through a different media lens.

A 1999 study on women candidates and elected officials said the press seemed to focus inordinately on their “hair, hemlines, and husbands.” The research by the White House Project, a group dedicated to electing a woman president in somebody's lifetime, also found that women officeholders “were not quoted directly and frequently were not attributed even when they took a stand.” The group noted that men greatly outnumber women guests on the Sunday news shows, which is significant only in the cultural message it reaffirms about who's in charge.

In the aftermath of the just-concluded midterms, it is apparent that those in charge of political coverage for some female office-seekers approached their responsibilities in a way that reflected a gender bias not evident in similar coverage of male candidates.

Michigan voters made history on Nov. 5 by electing the state's first woman governor. Jennifer Granholm ran and won on her impressive record of accomplishments, her competence, and her hard-nosed policies. But the day after her remarkable victory, all the Detroit Free Press could think of to herald the news was a Neanderthal headline in bold letters that shouted, “SHE'S THE BOSS.”

Can you imagine the same siren greeting Michigan Gov. John Engler on his election triumph or Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on his? Me neither. And speaking of the re-election of Governor Taft and defeat of his Democratic challenger Tim Hagan, no Ohio newspaper that I'm aware of hailed the predicted outcome as “Bob beats Tim.” It would have been flip at best and irreverent at worst to refer to the race's winner and loser on a first-name basis.

But in all fairness, The Blade's front-page banner on Nov. 6 had more than a few women wondering how the heated race between the Republican clerk of Toledo Municipal Court and the veteran Lucas County commissioner came down to what some regarded as a disrespectful “Maggie beats Sandy” headline. Did you see any male candidates in any election headlined with the same first-name familiarity the morning after the midterms? Me neither.

It never fails. Just when women, who comprise just over half of the total U.S. population, begin to believe they really have come a long way, baby, the sexist trappings of a society hung up on hair, hemlines, and husbands prove how illusory progress can be. Even in the futuristic 21st century women must struggle to be taken seriously while competing for the same power and position men assume without passing the gender test. The old Virginia Slims campaign simulated female empowerment to sell cigarettes, but the fantasy went up in smoke years ago.


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