How women politicians are becoming just like the guys

Voters have long seen women as more honest than men. But as more women hold high political offices, that dual standard is changing – as the recent legal troubles of female politicians in Pennsylvania and Florida show.

Art Gentile/Bucks County Courier Times/AP
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane waves as she enters the Montgomery County courtroom on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, to continue her trial in Norristown, Pa. Ms. Kane, a first-term Democrat, is accused of leaking secret grand jury documents to the press to undermine a rival and lying about it under oath.

The criminal conviction last week of Pennsylvania’s now-former attorney general, Kathleen Kane, was a sad day for feminists.

Ms. Kane was once seen as a rising star in Democratic politics, with potential even for national office. Tough and ambitious, she had made the bold decision four years ago to run for her state’s top law enforcement job without ever having held office – and she won. Former President Bill Clinton was a supporter.

Now, having resigned in disgrace, Kane faces possible prison time after her conviction on nine criminal charges, including perjury and conspiracy. She was accused of leaking grand jury information to harm a rival, and then lying about it under oath. But she was not seen as corrupt, at least in the typical sense.

“Her crimes were personal and political, not economic or financial,” write Pennsylvania political analysts Terry Madonna and Michael Young.

Is there anything unusual about Kane’s story? Not really – except for her gender. American history is riddled with male politicians who get into legal trouble. Some go to prison. But such stories are rare for women, and that has created a different sort of narrative around women in politics.

Polls have long shown that voters – both men and women – see female political leaders as more honest and ethical than male politicians. That’s a good thing, say women in politics. Women face so many disadvantages in political life, starting with a reluctance to jump in in the first place, that any advantage should be exploited, they say. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the “character pedestal.” 

The downside is that women are held to a higher ethical standard, and when failings appear, public reaction can be especially harsh. But as more women have entered politics, and reached high-level positions, the “dual standard” is diminishing, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

“Voters used to think women were more unique and not part of the political class,” Ms. Lake says. “Now they think the women who emerge are part of the political class.”

Kane is just one example. Others include:

  • Rep. Corinne Brown (D) of Florida, who was accused of setting up a fake nonprofit for use as a “personal slush fund.” The recent 24-count federal indictment against her was a rare case of a female congresswoman facing legal trouble.
  • Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman forced to resign last month as chair of the Democratic National Committee. Leaked emails indicated that the DNC had its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination.
  • Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, who faced a probe by the Office of Congressional Ethics over her handling of campaign finances during her 2012 run for president. The inquiry ended without conclusion when she retired from office.

Then there’s Mrs. Clinton, who has undergone legal scrutiny, but never been indicted.

For some voters, concerns about her suitability for the presidency center on gender. But it’s her role in the larger, and at times controversial, Clinton enterprise – her husband’s presidency, her own political career, plus the family foundation – that may pose a bigger challenge, says Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at American University in Washington.

“I’ve often said that if people are fundamentally opposed to her, I’m not convinced that it’s sexism; it could be ‘Clinton-ism,’ ” Professor Lawless told the Monitor last fall. 

The suggestion is that Clinton and her husband are seen by some as a single political unit. A recent ad by an outside group that supports Donald Trump tries to makes that connection, alternating clips of both Clintons saying things that proved to be false.

In short, as the first female major-party nominee for president in US history, Clinton is in many ways the lead figure in a cautionary tale for women seeking elective office, as well as a role model. She has broken the political mold for decades, first as a political wife heavily involved in policymaking and then as a public official in her own right. Along the way, she has attracted admirers as well as detractors.

'Women don't have the Teflon that men have'

Her public favorability has fluctuated over the years, but she has generally performed better while holding office than when running for it. And when Clinton has been perceived as under attack on a gender-related matter, the public has rallied to her. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal came to light in early 1998, revealing that President Clinton had had an affair with a White House intern, Mrs. Clinton’s public approval rating jumped to 60 percent and stayed there, or higher, for well over a year. She’s now averaging in the low 40s.

Clinton’s Achilles’ heel has long been questions about her trustworthiness. In March 2008, during her first run for president, her Gallup score on honesty came in well below that of then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the eventual nominees. Only 44 percent of the public saw her as “honest and trustworthy,” versus 63 percent for Mr. Obama and 67 percent for Senator McCain.

Clinton did herself no favors when she decided to use a private email server, putting classified information at risk, while she was secretary of State. Charges of “pay to play” at the Clinton Foundation, in which donors allegedly got preferential treatment at the State Department, have only handed Mr. Trump more fodder for his “Crooked Hillary” tag.

The good news for Clinton is that her opponent is Trump. His ratings on honesty and trustworthiness are just as low as hers. The bad news is that, even as the “character pedestal” for female politicians is getting smaller, it’s still there.

“When men do things like hold a fundraiser with people who might benefit from legislation, voters don’t like it,” Ms. Lake says. “But when it’s a woman, voters are like, ‘Wait, I thought women were more honest.’”

And once a woman is knocked off the character pedestal, it’s hard to get back up. “Women don’t have the Teflon that men have,” says Lake.

Women still seen as less corrupt

But on balance, women politicians are less corrupt than their male counterparts, and less tolerant of corruption, at least in countries where corruption is stigmatized, according to academic research.

That would argue for more election of women to office in the United States – a figure that grows steadily, but is still relatively low: only 19.4 percent in Congress (House and Senate combined) and 24.4 percent in elected statewide executive positions.

The lower corruption rates for women stem, in part, from how females are raised. “Women have been socialized to be more risk averse than men, and so that’s one thing that operates among women political candidates,” says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

If anything, the case of Kathleen Kane in Pennsylvania demonstrates the potential risk of rising too far too fast in politics, regardless of gender.

“Kane often seemed to lack the temperament needed to fulfill the duties of a statewide elected official,” write Messrs. Madonna and Young.

Still, being female may have added to the challenge. Throughout her time in office, she railed against an “old boys’ network,” which she apparently believed was threatened by her status as the state’s first elected woman attorney general.

Kane exemplified the classic “paranoid style” in American politics, and saw enemies everywhere, Madonna and Young write. But “to be fair, some were even real.”

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