When a woman takes the podium, listeners are evaluating her ability to present on a particular topic and, consciously or not, are measuring her against feminine stereotypes: there are Ethnic Stereotypes such as the overprotective Jewish Mother and the icy cold WASP mother, Welfare Mothers, Queen Bees, and Teen Mothers. And now we have the “Mama Grizzlies.” Sarah Palin believes that a Mama Grizzly is the best candidate to lead in government “because moms kind of just know when there’s something wrong.” That’s the kind of mushy kind-of, sort-of language that means nothing and that our research indicates women speakers would be wise to avoid. But the branding of women politicians as “Mama Grizzlies” has been an effective media tool and we shouldn’t be casual and wave it off. The last thing we need to advance women today is a back-to-the-kitchen barefoot-and-pregnant stereotype.
Given today’s polarized society, today’s women leaders want to convey it’s their ability to be logical, rational, and a big-picture thinker that counts; however, it’s not that easy for women leaders (or those that want to be) to be taken seriously in a media obsessed youth culture that perpetuates sex-role stereotypes. In spite of women’s advances in academia, business, and the professions, stereotypes do continue to impede women’s economic, political, and professional progress into the top leadership roles. Specifically, the 2006 Catalyst Census shows that, even though women make up over 50% of the management, professional, and related occupations, only 15.6% of Fortune 500 corporate officers and 14.6% of Fortune 500 board directors are women. Research from psychologists about stereotypes continues to inform us that there is a double standard of mental health in the field itself and that behaviors such as being active, independent, objective, and logical were equated with the mentally healthy man while more dependent, emotional, subjective, passive and illogical behaviors characterized the ‘ mentally healthy woman and the mentally healthy child.’ And these standards of supposed ‘normalcy’ were coming from mental health professionals!
So let’s not forget that when women speak up, they will be scrutinized with regard to their ability to be seen and heard as mentally strong, logical, independent thinkers who can make good decisions. And it seems perfectly okay that, in the year 2010, women like me can scrutinize other women’s ability to transcend stereotypes when they promote themselves for a top leadership role.
Not only does the term “Mama Grizzly” perpetuate stereotypes but Palin’s rationale for mom’s moral superiority makes no sense when we look at the records of the Tea Party candidates that Palin endorses. In her recent cover story, Newsweek’s LISA MILLER tries to understand why the country would want to support them and comes up empty. Miller writes that:
“Many people are dissatisfied, and they want to vent and they want to change Washington. But in the wild, real mama grizzlies are known to be aggressive, irrational, and mean. The issues facing the country are complex, and bears are not.”
There is no small irony when we look at the positions that Mama Grizzlies have taken with regard to the policies that might actually help women and children. Miller continues:
“Most of these candidates have vowed to fight to repeal President Obama’s health-care plan, for instance, and …have taken special aim at CHIP, a federalprogram aimed at helping low-income kids get health insurance.” In 2001, as a member of Nevada’s state Assembly, Sharon Angle voted no on a domestic-violence bill that would recognize restraining orders issued in other states. In 2007, Nikki Haley, a state representative, voted against a measure that would have created a kindergarten program for at-risk kids. In 2009 Michele Bachmann voted no on a bill that would give federal employees four weeks of paid parental leave. As governor of Alaska in 2008, Palin slashed funding for teenage mothers even though she herself is the mother of a teenage mother.
So even though recent census data indicates that the majority of American children are poor and in need of help, the general agreement seems to be whatever government policies are proposed to help women and children, raise a bear claw and vote ‘no.’
The “Mama Grizzlies” are strange ‘bedfellows’ when you think that Palin includes Mama Grizzly Carly Fiorina, stepmother; Fiorina’s education, executive experience, and vast wealth place her among America’s elite. Never no mind. Seems like every woman who is an Evangelical Christian is welcomed into the big tent .
And with the changing nature of the family being a fact of modern life (anyone watch Modern Family these days?)…any thinking-woman will question a single definition of “motherhood” and certainly not “motherhood” as the uber reason to vote for anyone for Congress. For educated women and for working women, motherhood is no longer the single defining experience. We need to find women leaders of every stripe to work respectfully with others, negotiating solutions to problems that we couldn’t even imagine a week ago much less when we were living in the wilderness.
Are you a Grizzly or a chimp-wimp? Women today would find it offensive to be defined in these narrow terms or by any Either/Or constraints because we play many roles. Thoughtful women with big ideas want to be seen, heard, and taken seriously on their own terms based on the realities of everyday life. When you get up to speak, consider your position on policy issues facing women, children, and families such as childcare, pay equity and reproductive choice. Bring people together around common goals within a modern context we can all relate to. Stay away from labels. Don’t simplify the lives of women and assume we are all the same. If you can do that, you’re the kind of leader that your community (and the nation) needs. Aggressive, irrational, and mean-spirited Grizzlies need not apply.