Kunin: On women running for office

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(HOST) Grassroots participation in politics has increased dramatically in recent years, but commentator Madeleine Kunin thinks that too many women are still reluctant to run for office.  

(KUNIN) I was a guest lecturer recently at an introductory class on Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont. After telling the students about my journey into politics, and hoping to encourage them to think about running for office themselves one day, I asked how many of them had thought that they would ever get involved in politics.

This was a seminar of about 18 students – all women, except for two men.  One woman raised her hand and said, "I think I’d like to work behind the scenes. I wouldn’t want to be the candidate. I tend to be sarcastic, and I’m afraid people would think I was catty."

Hmmm! First, the professor and I both jumped on the word "catty."  Why would she use this term that evokes such a strong gender stereotype? I pointed that out, but I also encouraged her: "It’s great to work behind the scenes, and if you get involved in a campaign you’ll learn a lot, and you might want to run yourself. "

She didn’t buy into that. Then, the professor pointed out the writing on the t-shirt one of the men in the class was wearing. I hadn’t bothered to try to decipher it from across the table.

It said, in bright yellow scraggly letters on a black background, "SARCASTIC, that’s one of my talents."


There it was: the point I had been trying to make – that there are still gender differences in how women and men approach political leadership – was right in front of my eyes.   (This was the same male student who asked the first question.)

She was afraid of being considered sarcastic, and he flaunted it as an interesting or funny attention getter.  What works for a man still does not work for a woman, both in terms of how they see themselves and how we see them.

I also noticed that women in the class were less inclined to speak up. Another woman explained that it was so difficult for her to form her own opinions because there was so much information and so many divided opinions.  Her father thought one thing, her friends another. I assured her that she was still in a formative stage, and college was a good time to explore and experiment with different beliefs.

But I suspect very few men would confess to not having opinions – or, better yet, would not be worried about their lack of opinions.

Many women do not want to venture out into the "opinion world" until they are certain of themselves, the facts, and that they are right. The result is often silence. To be political means to speak out, to risk being called "catty" or worse.  I don’t hear men worrying about that. They often enjoy the fight – whether it’s with words or fists

Perhaps that’s why only 17 percent of the members of Congress are female, and  men are still largely running the country.

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