A Myth is a Female Moth

Noah Fram

Welcome back, friends!  Do you remember this?  Of course you do.  Did you laugh at it?  Naturally.  But did you agree with the sentiment?

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are both brilliant comediennes, as clearly evinced by this skit (as well as many, many others).  They also both left Saturday Night Live for varied reasons, have been noted for other television and film projects, and (as I’m not sure you noticed) both happen to be women.  Both were spoofing women who occupied positions of influence in the political world of 2008, and both were successful at it largely because those women stood for a fairly novel concept: the idea that the White House would finally break the gender barrier.

The incomparable Richard Lederer quoted a student as having written that a myth was defined as “a female moth.”  If we see politicians as moths, fluttering around the national spotlight until one finds it and is immediately singed, then this is remarkably accurate: the female moths are fairly novel.  The first woman in Congress (Jeannette Rankin) was elected from Montana in 1916, a century and a half after the Declaration of Independence.  This isn’t surprising in and of itself, but this is: over the last ninety years, no woman has attained a significantly higher public office than Ms. Rankin, although many have held their posts longer than she did (she held her seat from 1917-19 and again from 1941-43).

But for some reason, the idea of a woman as President, or even Vice President, continues to fascinate the country.  We’ve had women as CEOs or major corporations (such as Hewlett Packard), women as Secretary of State (Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton), and even women as Vice Presidential candidates before (Geraldine Ferraro, anyone?).  Problematically, only Albright and Clinton met with particular success, as HP is noted for not being as good as Apple, and Ms. Ferraro had the misfortune to be Walter Mondale’s running mate.  At least it wasn’t Michael Dukakis, he of the worst PR photo ever taken.

Today, of course, Sarah Palin has a reality TV show, Tina Fey is on 30 Rock, and Amy Poehler was recently divorced.  But the point remains: why have there been so few successful female politicians?

I don’t like the easy answer (prejudice) because it isn’t unique.  There’s prejudice against just about everybody.  Electing a Catholic President was a milestone.  Republicans nominating a Mormon was even more groundbreaking.  And an African-American man currently occupies the Oval Office.  Barriers were made to be broken.

And consistently, women have been doing so.  Women have been groundbreaking researchers (Rosalind Franklin), won Nobel Prizes (Toni Morrison, Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock), created academic disciplines (Jane Addams), and been nominated to the Supreme Court (Justices Bader-Ginsburg, O’Connor, Sotomayor, and Kagan).  There have 39 women elected to the US Senate, and 229 in the House of Representatives.  Ground has been gained.  But not evenly.

This is the real point, I think.  Hillary Clinton was regarded as highly competent, but too powerful a personality.  Sarah Palin was seen as inept and ill-suited to the office, but likeable (we all have our own opinions on that).  In a sense, Palin violated people’s perception of the White House, while Clinton violated people’s perception of femininity.  It’s a no-win situation, although hopefully Clinton’s term as Secretary of State has started to dispel this sort of bias.

Like with the death penalty, international conditions seem to suggest a shift away from the avoidance of women as heads of state; Margaret Thatcher, Pratibha Patil, and Angela Merkel all are instances of countries breaking the glass ceiling.  Germany and India are both also fairly young democracies, and the United Kingdom is our closest cultural relative.  So in my opinion, the United States is incredibly close.

The trick will be picking the right “first woman President.”  Sarah Palin in the Oval Office would have been an unmitigated disaster.  That isn’t a violation of my moratorium on personal opinions, since it isn’t an opinion; it’s a fact.  So beyond electing somebody who actually doesn’t understand the basics of governance (or at least, who believes that pretending not to is a good strategy), we’re down to matters of preference.  What ideology do we want?  Would we prefer Hillary Clinton or Nikki Haley?

The world is in the process of taking the next step, and the United States looks ready to step right along with them.  Female moths are less of a myth today than they were twenty years ago.

For the full text of Richard Lederer’s “The World According to Student Bloopers,” go here, and if you like this go find a copy of his book, Anguished English, at your library.  Seriously.  It may be the funniest book I’ve ever read.

Next week’s article will be called: “The Pandits of the Serengeti.”  If you want an explanation, come back on Monday!