Women, Politics and Power: What Is Your Political Dream?

Women have a huge sway in politics, especially democratic politics. The female voting demographic is closely examined and catered to whenever possible. Yet, rarely are there a proportionate number of duly elected female representatives, even when political parties set specific targets. Why? Studies show, women tend not to vote for women.

In a recent Globe and Mail discussion of why Mr. Ignatieff has failed to win over women voters, after a string of quotes that suggest female voters make political decisions based on a mixture of sex-appeal and perceived trustworthiness, I found this:

Calgary businesswoman Anette Ceraficki, 44, said of him: “I really want to like him. I really want to get excited about him as a leader, but he’s not giving me much to work with.

“When you see him in public, he’s surrounded by men in grey suits. He’s not supposed to be one of those guys. I like to think of the parallel being Obama. This is my dream. He’s got women all around him, smart, strong women.”

It shocked me that the political dream of a 44 year old woman in this day and age is a powerful man surrounded by a gaggle of (I am sure, smartly dressed) women competing with each other to win his opinion. Honestly, this seems more like a male political fantasy to me. Even the most charitable reading of this women’s political fantasy seems to me inadequate. Why have a male figure-head enacting the will of a group of political über-women, when a woman could do it just as well?

Is this woman’s political dream representative of women’s political dreams, generally speaking? I suspect it is, or, at least, something very much like it. How else to explain the tendency of women to not vote for women, even when given the opportunity?

So my questions: what is your political dream and in what way is it different from this woman’s dream? Would you vote for a woman, if you knew she was going to be in charge? How would you assess her potential for political leadership? Is this article just another case of a male-dominated media perpetuating sexist stereotypes about about woman voting patterns or does it actually offer genuine insight into women’s voting patterns? How do you explain the tendency of women not to vote for women?

Personally, I’d like to know.

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25 thoughts on “Women, Politics and Power: What Is Your Political Dream?

  1. Why assume that the 44 year old woman is dreaming of a powerful man surrounded by women “competing with each other to win his opinion”?

    Maybe she’s instead hoping that said political leader is respectfully listening to the opinions and thoughts of his advisers- male and female.

    1. Yes, it is possible, she imagines it in that fashion. I agree.

      The first reason for my assumption is that I have worked in politics and “competing with each other to win [the leader’s] opinion” is exactly how it works. Second, lots of history and social science supports this scenario.

      But, building on your point, it is very possible this woman is not thinking about politics in this light. We can even imagine politics might be very different with a gaggle of female political advisers rather than a gaggle of guys in gray suits. My question remains : why imagine this scenario, why “dream” of a male political leader respectfully listening to the thoughts of advisers when she could imagine a female political leader doing the same? Why is her dream of political leadership gendered male?

      1. People who have worked in an industry have a different perspective. It’s fair to assume this woman hasn’t worked in politics and doesn’t know that competing for the favour of the political leader is the norm, yes?

        I agree with PFP- this is a woman who used “dream” when she likely meant reasonable reality.

        Her real dream might be a political leader who is a purple giraffe, or a state of leader-less anarchy, but those are harder to relate to than a “dream” example of a political leader we can actually point to.

        1. We agree there is more than one way this woman’s statement might be interpreted and some will be more charitable than others. I cite my interpretation of this woman’s comment as a possible explanation for why women tend not to vote for women candidates. I may not parse her words correctly, my interpretation may be wrong, but my interpretation still may or may not be a plausible explanation for why it is women tend not to vote for women. That latter question is my main concern.

          Your concluding comment in fact implies a plausible and valuable answer to my question. You suggest, some voters may have a hard time imagining women as political leaders because it seems so far removed from political reality. Ultimately, that is my point. If women can’t imagine female political leadership, then the likelihood of it happening is much more slim. For example, Barack Obama would not be in power if he and his supporters imagined that the only reasonable political reality is a white president with strong black advisers. Until we imagine the possibility of strong female political leadership, until women easily and unapologetically imagine strong female political leadership, rally for it, and vote for it, it will not appear.

          One of the interesting outcomes of the recent polling is that women, as a voting block, seem to be dissatisfied with all the candidates. Hopefully, this dissatisfaction will motivate them to shake things up in their local riding associations.

          1. I feel like you’re just glossing over the issue of interpretation here. When I read that comment, my thought was that the 44-year old woman was talking about a reasonable reality.

            Is it somehow wrong to dream of a reasonable reality?

            Revolutions happen, of course, but a lot of change happens in small steps over time. Would it not be reasonable to dream that women were more involved in the political process at all levels, rather than just elected positions?

            How many decisions are our elected officials actually making themselves anyways? Aren’t the administrators doing the actual work?

            sidebar: I loved your use of “this day and age”. As if we are living in a world where men and women (and immigrants and aboriginals, etc) are actually equal. snort. please.

            But a great post to rile up your female feminist readers! (there are a lot of us I see)

            1. I am happy to admit there is more than one charitable interpretation of this text. My view is the best interpretation won’t settle the question I am addressing one way or the other. My encounter with this comment and my interpretation of it was the inspiration for the post. Identifying the “best” interpretation won’t settle or wipe away the larger question.

              I am prepared to go out on a limb and say, yes, it is bad to imagine a “reasonable reality” which characterizes women primarily in supporting political roles. I think it is even more problematic when women do it. If women can’t imagine women as political leaders, how will they imagine themselves as political leaders? If this is the “reasonable reality”, then let’s ask, why.

              As I mentioned in another reply, I am very friendly to the idea that maybe strong smart women are too strong and smart to bother being politicians or have different priorities. If this is plausible, let’s ask why? And if this is true, maybe we should stop worrying about whether or not there are enough women political leaders. NB: this is a lot like the argument employed to justify why there are so few women in corporate executive positions.

              I am happy to admit inequalities may yet exist between we incredibly affluent men and women in the Western world but I’m not sure how scoffing and snorting illuminates those inequalities. Nor does it help to explain why they still exist, given the enormous gains that have been made. Is it a kind of generational hang-over, as (I think) Mare suggests? Will the next generation be any better? Do younger women have no problem imagining strong female political leadership? If so, why? If no, why?

              And yes, of course, aboriginal people in Canada are far worse off than most of us and so are many immigrant groups. Of course, some immigrant groups, South Asians fore example, are disproportionately represented in Canadian politics. Why is that? What lessons can be learned from these discrepancies?

              Curiously, my goal wasn’t to rile up my feminist readers, although I was trying to give them something they’d enjoy reading and commenting on. I was really hoping someone would take up my offer and share in detail his or her dream of political leadership. I was also curious if these dreams are gendered and why?

              1. oh come on. inequalities MAY yet exist? I could write a whole position paper on this but since this is a blog comment I think I’ll be brief and stick with my original snort.

                I think JC raises an important point for me. That women in public positions in many cases cease being identifiable, to me, as ‘women’. Empathy and collaborative approaches don’t seem to be the norm for people in positions of power. So those women who do end up making the ballot don’t have any appeal based on their gender. They just get lumped in with the rest of the candidates to be judged on the basis of their platform.

                Personally, I could care less if someone is a woman or not. I’m likely to be much more interested in their religious beliefs. I’ll take an agnostic male over a catholic female any day.

                1. Yes, “may.” It depends on what one means by “inequality” and it depends on the woman or “set of women” in question. Some inequalities are irrelevant, some aren’t. I’d love to read your position paper. Blog post?

                  Yes, I think JC’s analysis is valuable and plausible. As a rule of thumb, people tend to identify with people who are like themselves.

                  Which begs the question, why does anyone else but Wayne read this blog? 🙂

                  It seems to me a woman is much more likely to put up with “difference” in a man than she would in a woman. I wonder if men are the same with women. Are men more likely to put up with “difference” in a woman than a man? I don’t know.

                  1. I read your blog because I like to argue. And even though you make me want to scream with frustration sometimes, I feel that I improve my debating and critical thinking skills here. Better than watching an episode of Friends, that’s for sure.

                    But as far as my personal blog roll goes, you are an anomaly. I definitely read more blogs by 30-something-ish women trying to make their fashionable way through this tough, tough world.

                    And that’s because too much frustrated screaming is bad for ladies.

                    Blog post on inequalities between men and women in Canada to follow.

  2. I guess I’m not sure why you’re conflating the woman’s descriptive statement about a current political reality (what IS) with her dream (what could be). She’s contrasting the current leaders and pointing out what she believes to be the more ‘gynocentrically-inclined’ approach of one over the other. Does this preclude her wishing there were a female candidate? No, why would it? It seems a bit of a projection on your part?

    I disagree with the characterization that you can equate women’s voting decisions ‘on a mixture of sex-appeal and perceived trustworthiness’ – poop! I think that has more to do with G&M’s homogenous and snappy quote sample and also women using those types of terms to describe an approach to political decision making that is based on intuition AND rationality.

    1. I think we both agree that women are significantly underrepresented in Canadian politics. We also know that women tend not to vote for women even when they have the opportunity. If I am conflating or projecting, it is these facts which spur me to do so and it is this phenomenon which begs an explanation.

      I also think we both agree that this woman is smart enough to know that “This is my dream” carries a normative dimension. If this is the best that present political reality can offer, why characterize it as a “dream” when she might have said, “I had hoped he would have had more women advisors or he would advance stronger policies on issues important to women.” Why doesn’t she dream of Elizabeth May in charge? Why doesn’t she dream of a female Liberal leader? Why does her gynocentrically-inclined dream have a male at the centre of it?

      And yes, of course, her statement doesn’t preclude the possibility that in her heart of hearts she would prefer female political leadership, but words and the dreams we express publicly matter, especially for social reform, so why does this woman not characterize her political dream with a female political leader at the center of it?

      And yes, it is very possible that this article is simply perpetuating sexist stereotypes. For this reason, I invited readers to express their “dream” of political leadership. So I will invite you again. What is your dream of political leadership? Until we imagine the possibility of it, it can’t become a reality.

  3. So turns out: women tend to vote the way their husbands do. That fact was, in fact, why women got the vote in the first place. Because the powers-that-be recognized that they would essentially be doubling their own voting block by letting women vote. I am pretty sure that this state remains largely unchanged, mostly because (duh) people with similar political beliefs tend to pair off.

    My political dream? That Olivia Chow will stage a coup d’état and hoist NDP leadership away from her car-salesman/bully of a husband. Oh, and also that we get proportional representation instead of first past the post. Because first past the post (especially in this day and age, when people tend to vote for leaders/parties instead of their local representatives) is dumb.

    1. Renee, useful historical observation. It is often said the only reason women in New Zealand got the vote so early is because the temperance movement knew women would vote in favor of prohibition.

      I am also a strong advocate of proportional voting.

      Have you met Ms. Chow? Her work on the committees I worked on was pretty unimpressive. But even she would be better than Layton. Of course, the problem with the NDP is they hired the same style of political people as the Conservatives — just with a different set of concerns.

  4. Hm. I find this post troubling. Maybe I’m reading it wrong but it seems that you’re suggesting that women have a responsibility to vote for women just because they’re women. That’s something I just wouldn’t do. Lots of women are poopjerks (Condoleeza Rice or Sarah Palin, much?) just as equally as men, and conversely, there are fellas who take ecological and feminist issues (two of my primary concerns) seriously. I vote for a candidate, regardless of sex, who seems to best represent the issues that are of concern and interest to me. Lately, as in car manufacturing, none of the candidates in the ‘big three’ appeal to me one bit. Regardless of sex.

    1. “I like to think of the parallel being Obama. This is my dream. He’s got women all around him, smart, strong women.”

      My interpretation of this quote is a leader who values the contribution intelligent, decisive women is someone to be admired. In this case, she’s used Obama as a real-world example; however that doesn’t preclude a female taking his place in Ceraficki’s imagination.

      In terms of female leadership, here’s my deal. Politics (at least high-level politics) is a conservative (note the lower case “c”) male-dominated game. Most of the female candidates, I’ve been eligible to vote for play by the old boys’ rules. I suspect that is, at least in part, because they feel that’s the only way they will get ahead. Regardless, I look to female politicians who present a pro-feminist, pro-choice, socially progressive agenda. And I look to her to do so in an unapologetic, authoritative way. Sadly, the parties rarely put forth women who fit those criteria.

      Finally, regarding Proportional
      Representation vs. FPP: what Renée said.

      1. Yes, I agree. That is a plausible interpretation of the quote.

        Your follow-up comments suggest another reason why women don’t vote for women. The game of politics suits a certain personality type, that personality type is going to end up employing very similar strategies to get ahead, and when confronted with the choice between different gendered versions of that personality type, women shrug there shoulders and go with the male version because it is more familiar to them. It’s a standard observation in politics: to win you need to distinguish yourself from the opposition.

        There is another version of this of interpretation: I got out of politics because I realized it is an end-game rather than the driving force behind social change. Perhaps, smart strong woman, the kind of women who kicked out the foundation of institutional sexism, know this and prefer to spend their time and energy in more socially productive pursuits. Let the boys play with their cars, trucks, and elections, we’ve got better things to do.

        How might politics need to change to get other people involved? Proportional representation might be a good start.

        1. ‘when confronted with the choice between different gendered versions of that personality type, women shrug there shoulders and go with the male version because it is more familiar to them.’

          Or because that personality type won’t address certain concerns I have as a woman. And when a woman is the one dismissing what I believe to be critical issues, I feel it undermines their importance even more than when a male politician does it.

    2. Hey LB, thanks for your observation.

      I’m not suggesting women should vote for women because they are women, but I am certainly playing off the assumption of a large swath of women who think women should vote for women because they are women. Now, I am sympathetic to this latter view because women are better situated to understand and champion issues which concern women. So all things being equal, if a man and a woman endorse similar policies it seems plausible that a woman would be better off to vote for a woman. Of course, this is not always the case. In fact, the Palin nomination is a case in point. Let’s nominate someone from the hard-right who is a woman because women might vote for her simply because she is a woman. She certainly represented some but hardly all women.

      My concern is that it seems odd, given the power and importance of the women’s vote, why there aren’t more elected female candidates?

  5. First, ‘gynocentrically-inclined’ is awesome, and I’d vote for a purple giraffe over most of our candidates. Purple being my favorite color and all.

    Second, I believe the stats: women vote less for women candidates – by a measure of degree. If women are represented in an election at a rate of say, one woman to every fifteen men, then the ratio of women not receiving the ‘women’s’ vote will be disproportionately skewed. And that is exactly where the white male biased media postulates their ridiculous conclusions: women don’t support other women – so why should we?

    Third, to round out the conversation, the ‘Mommy Wars’ are a good example of women not supporting other women. As the last of the Boomers, I am here to say that my peers and I do a terrible job of buoying each other. In large measure this is because of our individual and collective resentment: I survived the patriarchal system, so suck it up and deal with it. I saw it in the corporate arena; I see it now as a parent and artist. (See the blogs addressing the ratio of women AD’s producing women playwrights.)

    Finally, I believe there are core issues at play here. Anger, sadness and loss underlie the historic oppression of women. A tragic phenomena that continues to plague many countries – including my own (US). Hillary was the smart shrew; and Sara was the dumb hottie. And there you are – as women, we’re still cast as bitch or slut. Where do we go from here?

    1. Thanks, Mare!

      Oh it’s worth saying and I might have mentioned this in my response to LB: there is lots of evidence to suggest men vote for people who are very much like themselves. If this is true, it is curious that women don’t as well. It seem implausible to me that those men they are voting for really are like the women who vote for them.

      I was going to cite both the Mommy Wars and the evidence that suggests women Artistic Directors are far more critical of women writers than men are but thought the length of the post might get out of hand (For the AD issue, see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/theater/24play.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=women%20playwrights&st=cse) . Both of these phenomenon suggest another possible explanation: women are far too hard on other women (and there own selves) for all the reasons you cite.

      It’s a good question. Where do we go from here? My hope: we start imagining new possibilities.

      1. I was going to mention the female AD vrs female playwright controversy too, but I’m not too keen on how you have interpreted it – namely that both phenomenon suggest women are harder on other women (as a unified class) than men are on the same women.

        I think it is worth considering that, like business, (and becoming AD at a mainstream professional theatre company?) politics is a game where success (even to get to becoming a candidate in a riding) depends on certain attributes typically associated with maleness. There are plenty of women that succeed in business and politics, but mostly (frequently?) they do so by successfully emulating (possessing?) these particular attributes.

        (Flame control: This is, to me, no more controversial than saying that athletes need to be competitive people to succeed at the highest level. I don’t think women who succeed in business are actually less female than others.)

        But perhaps these women candidates face animosity from other women (I cautiously propose “most women”) precisely because they are not “like” other women who do not share those traits. So perhaps female voters reject female candidates because those candidates are not sufficiently “like” them, whereas for male voters they seem sufficiently “mannish” to vote for, assuming the politics align.

        I could go on to talk about a dream where the people who are selected to lead our country are the people who lack these particular traits (charisma over content, political fanaticism, pragmatic when values conflict with personal success). Perhaps we should all take a test in high school and a machine select the leaders rather than voters? Of course that leads to classic robot apocalypse so I’ll just shrug and say “proportional representation is neat”.

        (Amanda criticized me for not commenting on things, so I’m jumping in with both feet on this one.)

        1. JC, good to hear from you!

          I am happy to read an alternative interpretation. For the record, with respect to the female AD/playwright data, I’m only reporting what the study discovered or, at least, what the NY Times reported.

          According to that study, the gender of the playwright made no difference to male ADs but female ADs were much harder on female playwrights. As far as the Mommy Wars go, I am happy to say I may have been too flippant with that remark and perhaps men have a much greater role to play in it, however, every woman who has ever discussed the issue with me has characterized it as woman vs. woman debate.

          Thank you also for your hypothesis to explain why women tend not to vote for women. It certainly seems plausible. And yes, in terms of personality type, I’ve looked at least one MBTI study which found that women who are in management positions are much more likely to have the personality types thought to be suited for those roles. In particular, they tend to be “T”s, at least for the purposes of work, rather than “F”s. Turns out the only personality trait that corresponds to gender is the “T/F” pair. Men are more likely to be Ts and women Fs.

          Your analysis, which seems very plausible to me, is that women are less likely to identify with women because they have a different personality type than their own (I think this also fits with what Nadine wrote). So, in an instance when Politician A & B advance the same policies and demonstrate the same personality type, your claim is that a woman may be more likely to vote for the man because his personality and policy is more in accord with the expectations of how a male should act, whereas the female is too anomalous to be trusted. This seems plausible and generalizable to both men and women — that is both genders do this to both genders. Although I am tempted to think we (men and women) are much more tolerating of difference in males than we are in women. Or are we?

          I can’t help but think how Ms. Clinton’s support surged when she shed that tear.

          And, it also explains why visions of political leadership is often gendered male. If men tend to be T, and women F, then it is no surprise people often see political leadership being “naturally” male, assuming of course that “T” style personality is the best style of political leadership which is an open question.

          So the big question: do we need a different style of political leadership? Or should women (and men) be more accepting of women who exhibit personality traits unlike their own?

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