Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

"Year of the woman' sees old stereotypes put to a new use

A question: Which woman prominent in national politics told the graduating class at Smith College last May that women were different from men because their understanding was "not intellectual, but instinctive"? It wasn't Marilyn Quayle, that defender of women's "essential nature." It wasn't first mom Barbara Bush. It was the frankly feminist Texas Gov. Ann Richards, one of the new stars of the Democratic Party.

You know that the Republicans have taken heat for peddling a narrow, nostalgic vision of women in this campaign. But have you noticed the way Democrats are stereotyping women these days?

The idea of "a new gender of leadership," as Gov. Bill Clinton put it, reflects more than the growing political importance of such "women's" issues as child care, parental leave and abortion rights. Increasingly, women as a group are said to be bringing fresh, special _ that is, feminine _ qualities to politics.

"We speak in a different voice," pronounced Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski at the Democratic convention as she introduced the women running for the Senate this year. Senate candidate Barbara Boxer of California rarely makes a stump speech without mentioning that as a woman, she can provide a perspective different from that of a roomful of "suits" (even though her views are almost certainly closer to Sen. Edward Kennedy's than to Jeane Kirkpatrick's). New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen suggests that if we want politicians who don't sleep around and who know about real life _ from "the supermarket (and) the bus stop" to "human rights, abortion, the minimum wage and sexual harassment" _ we should elect women.

What's so wrong, on feminist grounds, with this picture? What's the problem with saying that women are more honest and better fit to handle "caring" issues like child welfare, health care, the elderly and the environment? Well, this 1990s catalog of female virtues bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1950s vintage: sexual purity and down-to-earth common sense. This biology-as-destiny argument was one of the central bugaboos of '60s-era feminist crusades. But now that confining stereotype is being invoked, not by male TV producers, but by some of America's most prominent and progressive women.

How could this have happened? Part of the answer lies in a shift in the women's movement from the message that people should be judged as individuals and not on the basis of their gender to a view of men's and women's lives as gender-defined. In the influential 1982 book In a Different Voice, psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that men and women make moral decisions in fundamentally different ways: Men stress autonomy, justice and rights; women focus on connections, relationships and caring.

Though many feminists were disturbed by Gilligan's emphasis on sex differences and some social scientists were skeptical of her research (her broad conclusions were derived from a study involving a tiny number of men and women), the "ethic of care" soon became central to academic and popular feminist discourse.

The political extension of this was to label the values of self-reliance and competition as male, while welfare programs and social spending _ "caring" by the state _ were said to reflect women's values. The media picked up on this theme, portraying women as less confrontational and thus less likely to start a war, more attentive to the environment, and more committed to programs for children and families.

Yet is there such a thing as a "women's agenda"? In the past decade, women have been less likely than men by 5 to 15 percentage points to vote Republican. And undoubtedly women place a high priority on issues that affect them directly, such as abortion. Still, the relationship between gender and political views is a more complicated one than the new sex stereotyping allows.

For instance, a recent Gallup poll for Life magazine found that more women than men felt poverty and homelessness should be a top government priority (44 percent vs. 29 percent, with a possible six-point margin of error). But there was no gender gap in support for laws requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work (about 88 percent) or for child care funding so welfare mothers could work or study (91 percent). Women were less supportive of the death penalty _ but, between life imprisonment or execution for murders, a majority chose the latter, though by a smaller margin than men.

But even with a 20-point gap between the sexes on a given issue, the assumption that in a random pair the man will take the "male" stance and the woman the "female" one has a 65 percent chance of being wrong.

Women in power rarely live up to the "kinder, gentler" model. After all, modern times have brought us Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto. This preponderance of tough women leaders is sometimes ascribed to the fact that they had to play by the rules of a "male system." Once women get elected in large numbers, the argument goes, they'll feel secure enough to bring their communal values out of the closet. Yet New Hampshire, with women making up 32 percent of its legislature, has perhaps the most rugged individualist ethos and the fewest social services of any state.

Nor do women seem to be vastly more ethical than men once they get inside power structures. In Arizona, where over a third of state legislators are women, several were among the "stars" of a recent bribery scandal uncovered by an FBI sting operation. In the District of Columbia, in the corruption-addled administration of Marion Barry, a third of those convicted were women.

It may be true that certain traditional assumptions about women _ that they're concerned with "soft" issues and tend to be political neophytes _ have turned from liabilities into assets, while some liabilities _ like the perception that they're less competent in national security matters _ are less important since the fall of communism. But for women to actively cultivate these perceptions is nearsighted. Four or eight years from now, the political winds may change.

Moreover, if women are welcomed into politics not as human beings but as women, what happens once it is seen that women in government are no angels of mercy _ that they act more or less like men?

The whole point of women's liberation was that no one _ neither Barbara Bush nor Bella Abzug nor Madonna _ could tell you to act or think in a certain way because you were female. This doesn't mean that women in politics or elsewhere should be "like men," for the simple reason that all men are not alike. Neither are all women. Arguing otherwise, no matter how politically convenient, diminishes our humanity.

Cathy Young writes frequently about women's issues.

Special to the Washington Post