Former governor discusses challenges women face in politics

In her talk “Lipstick Republicans and Why They Make the Left Crazy,” former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift focused upon the injustices faced by women seeking political office, rather than upon the liberal reaction to feminist Republicans.

She began Monday’s talk by announcing that President Schapiro had asked her to speak at the College as part of the ongoing lecture series on the 2008 election, but only under the condition that she reflect the Republican viewpoint and be prepared to “carry that banner proudly.”

She then turned her focus to the main portion of her talk, addressing challenges that women face in seeking public office. Swift argued that while this has been a historic season for female candidates, with the campaigns of Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor Sarah Palin, there remain numerous obstacles to women attaining high political positions.

“There are significant differences in how female and male candidates are treated by the media and the public,” Swift said. Citing a study done by the Center for American Women and Politics, Swift said that one out of six newspaper articles reporting on Elizabeth Dole’s 1998-1999 campaign in the Republican presidential primary mentioned her appearance, and 62 percent commented that she was the wife of former candidate Bob Dole, most in reference to a quote he had made which undermined her qualifications. Swift additionally commented that only 3 percent of newspaper articles from the 2000 campaign mentioned President George Bush’s appearance, while less than 1 percent of the 2008 reporting has mentioned Senator John McCain’s appearance.

Swift also cited her own experiences, noting that one reporter wrote almost daily about her dress and makeup choices. After delivering her State of Education address, Swift “opened the papers the next morning to coverage of a pretty nice picture of myself with a comment, untrue, that I’d worn the same suit two days in a row,” she said. The incessant commentary on female appearances leaves few column inches for information about women’s policy choices. The main problem, Swift noted, is not the vileness of the comments about women, as men receive equally debasing remarks, but rather the frequency.

Swift pointed to Clinton’s campaign as an example of the female double standard. She said that Clinton, like all women, was expected to prove the credibility of her qualifications. The qualifications of men in her position, said Swift, were instead believed outright. Clinton’s problem was that she ran the only kind of campaign that could result in a woman’s election: “steady, strong and serious.” The reason that she did not win, according to Swift, was that the public was looking for change. Had she run on the change ticket, however, Swift believes that Clinton would not have been elected either, because she would not have demonstrated her legitimacy as a female candidate.

As for Palin’s campaign, Swift admits that McCain’s team has not attempted to take on these gender issues and instead has allowed personal issues to eclipse substance. The Republican campaign chose, especially in Palin’s early days on the ticket, to portray her as a hockey mom rather than as a politician with experience. When McCain referenced Palin’s special understanding of children suffering from autism in the final debate, most Americans were unaware of her work for autism awareness organizations, but could “name all five of her children,” Swift said.

As the first governor ever to be pregnant and give birth while in office, Swift has often been criticized for neglecting her children in order to do her job. She was “thrown into a national debate over working versus stay-at-home mothers,” never mind the fact that Swift said she “is no better a mother now” that she is no longer holding office.

Finally addressing the subject of “Lipstick Republicans,” Swift defined these women as those who support free trade, lower taxes and strong stances on national security, but who also “live in a world of Title IX and believe that women should be given the same career opportunities as men.” There is a large divide between these women over abortion. “To remain a strong party, Republicans must find common ground over the issue of abortion,” Swift said. She added that feminist women tend to be Democrats because they are left-leaning on more issues than just women’s rights.

Swift stressed three main points: first, that more research is needed on biases against female candidates, especially from this year’s Palin and Clinton campaigns; second, that there needs to be more progress for women who want to work and raise families; and third, that “Lipstick Republicans” need to band together after being divided over the abortion issue and support female Republican candidates.

Swift, born in North Adams, Mass., attended Trinity College before being elected Lieutenant Governor of
Massachusetts in 1998. She became the state’s first female Governor when Arego Paul Cellucci resigned in 2001. She gave birth to twin daughters while in office. She was succeeded by Mitt Romney in 2002 and has since travelled the nation giving speeches on the topic of women in politics. She spent 2008 campaigning for McCain and has been fighting to debunk rumors about Palin. Swift lives in Williamstown and has taught and lectured at the College in previous years.

In addition to her lecture in front of a capacity crowd in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall Monday evening, Swift spoke to a leadership studies class taught by Chip Chandler, professor of leadership studies. She will also be teaching a Winter Study course entitled The Presidential Transition Process: A Political Perspective and a course on political leadership next semester.