Women leadership styles
What kinds of women run -- and win? A few distinct types have emerged.
The Iron Lady
Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most prominent example of a political Iron Lady: a tough, tested woman who uses that profile to persuade voters to set aside historic suspicions that women are weak executives.
But Clinton didn’t invent the role. The original Iron Lady was Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Great Britain. Mark Penn, Clinton’s pollster and chief strategist, even compared his boss to Thatcher early in the campaign, writing in a memo that there was a “yearning” among voters for “someone who can combine the toughness they are used to with the negotiating adeptness they believe a woman would bring to the office” – citing Thatcher as the model who “proves the case.” Being tough did not win Clinton the nomination, though she came close.
It has worked elsewhere, however, particularly overseas, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was elected as the “Iron Frau” and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and five of her female cabinet appointees are together known as the “Iron Ladies.” And Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State and a mentor to Clinton, was nicknamed “Titanium Lady” for her similarities to Thatcher.
The Young Mom
Sarah Palin introduced a new idea into national politics: What if a woman with small children runs for – or serves in -- higher office? Palin set off shockwaves when she brought her young children – ranging from infancy to early adulthood – out onto the stage at the Republican Convention. But increasingly young mothers are part of the political process, even if their numbers are still relatively few.
Some, like Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have managed to raise children while commuting between their districts and Washington. Once accused of being “frazzled” by a Republican opponent, Wasserman Schultz argues that being a mother actually makes her a better politician. “Everything I do is through the lens of being my children’s mom,” she said.
Yet Palin served as a cautionary tale of what this model can bring – an example of what can happen when voters believe the charge that a young mother is too overburdened to do her job. That was the case, in part, with former Massachusetts Jane Swift, who gave birth to twins in office in 2001 and became a source of constant fascination – and criticism – in the months that followed, until the Republican party finally forced her to step aside to allow Mitt Romney to run for the seat in 2002.
The Grandmother in Pearls
It will be the lasting image of her Speakership: Nancy Pelosi, wielding the gavel as Democrats claimed control of the House, with a passel of small children gazing adoringly up at her. Pelosi, who speaks in her “mother of five voice” when she wants to chasten unruly lawmakers and keeps crayons in her outer lobby, is a model of an older woman who uses her maternal bonafides to argue that she has the instinct and practice to care for the nation. In many respects, Pelosi’s femininity masks her true governing style, which can be unrelenting and tough.
This is arguably the most proven model: Pelosi is, after all, the most successful woman in American political history. But she was elected Speaker by fellow members of the Democratic caucus, not the nation at large, and her approval ratings have sagged over time – meaning the model is not without risks.
Looking at the numbers, it is a good bet that the first woman to win on a national ticket could come from the ranks of law enforcement – especially if she is a prosecutor.
From Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who won two terms as Arizona governor, to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who appears headed toward victory in the race to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat, women who have proven themselves in the courtroom seem to carry that experience with them when they hit the campaign trail.
This is an untested model that will be under close scrutiny over the next year, as Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, wage campaigns in California.
Whitman, who is running for governor of California, said in a lengthy interview that her business acumen is “highly relevant” to her current race – eBay stock rose 5,600 percent on her watch, as she grew the company into the global powerhouse it is today. Even though Whitman compares politics to Morgan Stanley in the 1930s and ‘40s – “more of a little bit of an old boys’ club” – she said she is confident she can navigate it the way she did the business world.
Fiorina, who is running for Senate against incumbent Barbara Boxer, has a different dynamic in play. With a less illustrious business record to point to, Fiorina is pointing to her recent survival of breast cancer as evidence she is tough, something else that strategists confirm can be effective with voters.
If either of them wins – or if both do – it will mark a turning point for women in politics. To date, there has been no history of wealthy businesswomen transferring their skills to politics – no female Michael Bloomberg or Jon Corzine. Once more, California is striving for a first.