07.16.09 6:57 AM ET
Sit Down and Shut Up
Women should be seen and not heard. Or perhaps neither seen nor heard. That would be the message that our political leaders are sending us. Time and time again, our few rising stars are seeing their words dissipate as they ascend.
Is it any surprise then that the only way for women to be heard is to do things differently? On their own terms. To take it to the streets. To move forward in a non-traditional way. So as not to be silenced, discredited or simply disappear.
When President Obama picked Hillary Clinton for secretary of State, there were cheers throughout our country and abroad. What excitement for our new international spokesperson. And true to form, right away, Hillary exceeded even her biggest admirers' expectations. And of course, shortly thereafter, came the quiet mea culpa's of "you were right" whispered by those who weren't believers in 2008 to those who were.
If a woman gets too much power, she becomes a threat and she must either be silenced, discredited or simply disappear.
But as Hillary's poll numbers continued to rise, something rather strange started to unfold: Hillary went missing. She gradually became less and less of the spokesperson that our country so surely needed on international issues. There was barely an utterance of her name in the media as President Obama and Vice President Biden trekked around the globe working on international affairs. Until finally last week the blogosphere started to ask: Where's Hillary?
Hillary got the memo. She wisely decided to give a high-profile speech to reassert herself. So as Hillary's fans sat glued to their television sets eagerly awaiting her words, they were in for a surprise. Hillary wasn't on. President Obama's staff had scheduled an event in the Rose Garden, at, you guessed it, the same time. After all the build up for Hillary's breakout party, well, you can catch the speech on YouTube.
Also on YouTube, you can catch the speech by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as she introduces Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Well part of it. The part before Senator Leahy rudely interrupts her and basically tells her “shut up.”
In a Senate body known for its collegial atmosphere, especially amongst those of the same political party, the senator from Vermont just could not contain himself. Sure women compose just 17 percent of the Senate, and only 2 of the 19 members of the Judiciary Committee (Al Franken is on it; but not Kirsten Gillibrand). Don't you get it, Kirsten? Women in politics, if you are seen, should not be heard. And certainly not beyond five minutes.
Silencing women as they rise up the ranks of public life is hardly confined to U.S. senators from New York—former and current. This is par for the course in our fraternity of leadership. If a woman gets too much power, she becomes a threat and she must either be silenced, discredited or simply disappear. We even reward men like Larry Summers with the keys to our economy as a prize for silencing Brooksley Born. And give Timothy Geithner the other key for trying, as one of his first acts as Treasury secretary, to rid himself of FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair.
So is it any surprise that a brave woman from Alaska might decide to take a road less traveled? Why not? The fraternity of leadership couldn't quite get her to be silent or disappear, so it tried the next best thing: discredit her. Better yet, while discrediting her, let's go after her children—that will work like a charm.
But Sarah Palin, perhaps unwittingly, found a way to short circuit this whole diminution and demolition process. She decided that she didn't want to be in the fraternity after all. She would rather charter her own sorority and set up her own rules.
And whether this will all work, only time will tell. But in the mean time, take note. Here's something we can all agree on: we want to make this country better for the next generation. And in order to do so, we need our women leaders front and center and we need them now. We all lose when national treasures like Hillary Clinton are stowed away from our public eyes. We all lose when our daughters watch Kirsten being disparaged on national television for daring to speak. What lessons are we teaching the next generation? Our daughters and granddaughters. For certainly, they deserve better than this.
Amy Siskind is president and co-founder of The New Agenda, a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing women’s rights.