I sat down to lunch recently with another woman involved in local politics. Not too long ago we’d been adversaries in a hard fought primary campaign and the experience strained our relationship. Truth be told, I repeated some less than flattering words that had been spoken about her. Caught up in the stressful and zealous whirlwind of the campaign, my ideals of the Democratic sisterhood flew out the window when the heat was on and, frankly, I was ashamed of my behavior.
From comments about her appearance to her marital status, as a female candidate she faced remarks and criticism that a male candidate never would have. I wasn’t the only one gossiping; she told me about many women leaders – activists, politicians, businesswomen, and community leaders – that jumped on the negative bandwagon. The criticism and remarks were oddly miniscule excuses to dismiss her candidacy. Wasn’t it interesting, we mused, that as women, we can be the worst offenders and perpetuators of female stereotypes?
We both learned a lot, about society and about ourselves, from the campaign and from our conversation. First, allegiances become more fragile whenever there is an opportunity for advancement. Second, security – fear of losing something you have (reputation) or fear of not getting something you want (career advancement) – can be an agent of lost values and ultimately, regrets. Finally, unless it’s you, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be a woman in the spotlight: isolated, nitpicked, and undermined.
In his book “Pushing Up People: The Secret Behind One of the Most Exciting Success Stories in American Business” Art Williams writes that “…you succeed by helping other people succeed. The more people you help, the more success you have.”
It’s perfectly understandable that in the world of politics (or business) that we are just as competitive as men. But sometimes we set back our universal interest of being regarded based solely on accomplishments and character. Campaigns can be dog-eat-dog at times and certainly no one should be expected to prop up a political opponent per se. Negative campaigning can be acceptable – when it’s based on legitimate issues. But perhaps we women can be smart, aggressive, and successful in the political arena without cutting each other down based on stereotypes. Whisper campaigns help no one: they hurt all of us.
I know the next time I am involved in a conversation about another woman, whether she’s running for political office or PTA, I’ll take a step back and a breath before I open my mouth. The sisterhood isn’t just an ideal. We have to live it.
Emerge Massachusetts Class of 2012