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11.08.09

Hillary and Sarah's Common Theme

As Sarah Palin braces for a fresh round attacks linked to her book release—and Hillary Clinton returns from a bruising trip to Pakistan—Meghan McCain says the media’s constant bullying of women leaders is scaring young women away from politics.

As Sarah Palin braces for a fresh round of attacks linked to her book release—and Hillary Clinton returns from a bruising trip to Pakistan—Meghan McCain says the media’s constant bullying of women leaders is scaring young women away from politics.

I have admired Hillary Clinton for years. Though we disagree on nearly everything politically, I respect the barriers she has broken as a woman in American politics, and what she’s had to go through to get there. Those “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” will hopefully make other women’s journeys in politics easier in the future, but sometimes I am not so sure.

During her years in the White House, Hillary Clinton redefined what it meant to be first lady. She was involved with policy meetings and decisions her husband made—something that is still controversial to this day. Hillary was either a pioneer or overstepped her boundaries as first lady, depending on who you talk to. Since leaving the White House, she became the first former first lady to be elected to the Senate and the first appointed to another administration’s Cabinet. Admittedly, it has been a complicated and somewhat controversial first year as secretary of State. Then again, to be a powerful woman in politics is to be controversial.

Admittedly, it has been a complicated and somewhat controversial first year as secretary of State. Then again, to be a powerful woman in politics is to be controversial.

Perhaps the most famous incident in her tenure was the day she snapped at a student in the Congo after a question was mistranslated and she was asked what President Clinton thought about an issue rather than President Obama. “My husband is not the secretary of State, I am,” she roared back. “You ask me my opinion, I will give you my opinion, I won’t be channeling my husband.”

When I first saw the video, I thought she was great and reacted as strongly as any man would. After all, she is the secretary of State and for someone to ask her spouse’s opinion is ridiculous, even if the translator misspoke. In retrospect, I wish she had kept her cool, because the incident only seemed to confirm what misogynists have said for years—women are too unstable to hold positions of power.

Tina Brown: Hillary Finally Doffs Her BurqaI myself straddle the line between political commentator and a member of the political universe (in the sense that I have campaigned and know what it’s like to be in the trenches when you’re under fire) and it’s not easy being a woman. But it’s a dilemma that I and every woman of my generation face. We want to be involved in politics—perhaps even run for office—but it’s a steep price to pay. One day there will be a woman president, we are all told as little girls. You too can be a congresswoman or senator. But the reality of today is that to do so, you have to give up so much, in a way that is never asked of a man, and I believe running for office has become less and less appealing for women.

In fact, it’s gotten so ugly out there that two of the most prominent women in politics—Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—have become verbs: Candidates now regularly get “Hillary Clintoned” or “Sarah Palined” in the media. Misogyny works on both sides of the aisle.

The brutal criticism of Sarah Palin—which will only increase when her memoir comes out—is yet another example of the double standard and cruel treatment of women in politics. Sarah has been attacked for everything from her hair to her clothes to the number of children she gave birth to. Maureen Dowd even nicknamed her “Caribou Barbie.” I can’t even begin to think of what that kind of judgment—criticizing parts of your life that have nothing to do with what you stand for or want to accomplish politically—feels like.

Through it all, the example both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin set is so admirable. I respect any woman who will go out there and run for office. Maybe it’s a cliché, but no matter how many differences I may have with a woman politically, there is still a sense of kinship I feel for a woman in politics.

But having seen female candidates attacked on the right and the left, why would any woman my age ever feel inspired to run for office? What kind of example has the media set for my generation of women? I struggle with this. I don’t have ambitions to run for office—I have already done enough campaigning for one lifetime—but I already have a pretty good idea of what it would feel like. I have often wondered how the media would react if it were my brother writing these columns and speaking out on behalf of moderate Republicans. I can pretty much bet that his weight wouldn’t have been an issue.

So yes, Sarah Palin is a woman with five children and her physical appearance is deemed “too beautiful for politics.” And on the other end, Hillary Clinton is criticized for not being beautiful enough, for being “too tough” in the man’s world that she resides.

It seems to me the male-dominated media suffers from a Goldilocks Syndrome that keeps women from shattering the glass ceiling. Worse, I fear it will prevent tomorrow’s female leaders from even seeking office.

This one is too hard. This one is too soft. Who will ever be just right?

Meghan McCain is a columnist for The Daily Beast. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She is a New York Times bestselling children's author, previously wrote for Newsweek magazine, and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.