The XX Factor

Are Women Really Going To Be “Sideshows” in the 2012 Election?

Writing in yesterday’s Politico , Dee Dee Myers says that after a couple of election cycles in which women figured prominently, it’s shaping up to be a rough political 2012 for the fairer sex: “In the absence of a serious figure, like Clinton, the women getting attention as the campaign season begins fall into two categories: provocative but unelectable and provocative but who may render their husbands unelectable,” she writes.

I’m not so sure any of the candidates’ wives-including Callista Gingrich-are actually distracting enough to truly pull down a campaign (and spouse-as-campaign-sideshow isn’t exactly unique to this election cycle). The “provocative but unelectable” category, though, into which Myers slots Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, is a more interesting and relatively new one for women. It’s true that polling shows both those women to be basically unelectable in a general race-and yet so are plenty of male candidates every year (Hello, Ron Paul! Has it been four years already?). And Bachmann should be taken more seriously than Myers is willing to do: She’s got a stunning ability to fundraise , and in a primary, cash surplus might make up for cachet deficits.

It’s also-as Myers only glancingly points out-extremely early. Palin only entered the scene a few months before the actual election. And unlike in 2008, only one party’s presidential nomination is up for grabs. It was a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, who provided the gender storyline in the primaries last time, and no Democratic women have an opportunity to run for president this year-though I expect that as we get closer to the election, there will be plenty of electable women on both sides of the aisle involved in noteworthy House and Senate races. We can’t ignore that Palin and Bachmann are both Republicans-so maybe the problem isn’t best framed as “What happened to all the women?” but rather “Did we learn the wrong lessons from the Mama Grizzly model about what makes a good female candidate?” The congressional races will be more instructive in trying to answer that question: The presidential contest is the most high-profile, but the reality is that there simply aren’t a ton of Republican women with the experience and name-recognition to be running in 2012, and that would have been the case, probably, whether the Palin/Bachmann phenomenon had happened or not.