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He Said, She Said: Sexism Avoided in Debate

by Beth Palmer
Oct. 4, 20
ST. LOUIS – The man is from Delaware, the woman is from Alaska.

Maybe not Mars and Venus, but the stark differences in age and experience between Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Republican Sarah Palin had both sides worried before Thursday night’s debate – the only meeting of the vice presidential candidates.

Analysts had said success for Biden depended on him avoiding patronizing his younger, female opponent; professors said Palin’s success depended on her appearing competent and confident, while remaining feminine.

During their 90-minute face-off at Washington University, both Biden and Palin quieted critics. They remained respectful of each other, stuck to policy debate and both balanced a mix of masculine and feminine communication styles.

“He wasn’t out to get her,” said Micheala Winchatz, associate professor of communication at DePaul University.

Before the debate, Winchatz said Palin’s challenge was to balance femininity and aggressiveness; afterward, she said Palin walked the line well, adopting confidence while smiling and maintaining warmth.

“The problem in public speaking in our society is that it’s judged by a male standard,” she said. “It’s expected you’ll be assertive and confident … it’s very tricky for a woman politician because she has to maintain femininity.”

If a woman is too feminine, she’s perceived as weak; if she’s too masculine, she’s viewed unfavorably, Winchatz said. “A woman who is going to break through [the male standard] has to have an audience that’s understands that it’s not weakness, it’s feminine style [of communication,]” she said.

Before the debate, Palin had exhibited mainly feminine communication styles, Winchatz said, such as tilting her head when listening, sharing emotional anecdotes and personal information, and veering off on tangents when speaking; but, they were sparse at Thursday’s debate.

Palin is only the second female from a major party to run for vice president. Geraldine Ferraro, Democrat Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, was the first to appear in a debate when she faced Vice President George H.W. Bush. An exchange between the two candidates then prompted Ferraro to say, “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said the small number of female candidates at the national level has contributed to the tendency to associate qualifications with gender.

Thursday’s debate didn’t resolve Palin’s place in the still-evolving history of women’s rights. Some feminists and female politicians say they’re still deciding if they want Palin as their pioneer.

“It’s a crisis of conscience,” said Shayne Bell, vice president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization of Women, which has endorsed the Obama/Biden ticket. “This is a huge leap for women’s rights, but the fact that it’s this woman — she’s very anti-feminist in her beliefs — it’s soured.”

After watching the debate, Bell said Palin did better than she had expected her to.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, who began her 17-year tenure in the Chicago City Council by defeating a male incumbent, said it’s hard for women to break into politics. And once they do, the tightrope walking begins.

“The hard-nosed assertiveness men get kudos for, women get damned for being bitchy,” says Preckwinkle, who is known for being outspoken in City Hall.

Preckwinkle said increasing the number of female politicians will lead to an admiration of assertiveness in those women as it already is in their male colleagues.

Indeed, Preckwinkle has seen the Chicago City Council shift from the first two female aldermen 1971 to female aldermen accounting for a quarter of its 50 members today.

Still, some like Alec Ditonto, a 23-year-old human computer interaction major at DePaul University, want Americans to look past gender.

“The issue is moot,” Ditonto says. “What matters are the ideas the candidate presents and how well they represent their constituents.”

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