What should a powerful woman look like?

As Mrs Clinton moves centre stage in the race for the US presidency, she will be showing young people how a powerful American woman, on the cusp of winning the biggest job in the world, looks and acts.
As Mrs Clinton moves centre stage in the race for the US presidency, she will be showing young people how a powerful American woman, on the cusp of winning the biggest job in the world, looks and acts.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Outmoded gender perceptions trotted out when women explain why and how they want to lead

When my aunt Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in 2009, more than a few people wondered aloud why she hadn't run for president, as three of her brothers did.

By then, the United States had women on the Supreme Court and women as senators, representatives and governors. One woman had even come close to winning her party's presidential nomination. But when my aunt was young, she saw no women in elective roles, and what she could not see, she wasn't encouraged to be. Even now, among dozens of Kennedy cousins in the next generation, I am the only woman who has sought or held elective office.

What is a female candidate supposed to look like? Act like? Be? These are tough questions for Americans to answer, especially when we're so quick to recycle outmoded gender perceptions when women try to talk to us about why and how they want to lead.

As Mrs Hillary Clinton prepares to be the Democratic nominee for president, Americans are long overdue for what former president George H.W. Bush once contemptuously called "the vision thing". Only this time, it's about envisioning women as leaders. Why should one more woman have to contend with the conventional daily diet of criticism fed to me as a woman campaigning for political office?

When I first ran for Congress in the mid-1980s, I received unending commentary about my hair, just as Mrs Clinton has for decades. "Cut it" won out, even though I preferred to wear it longer. My campaign staff insisted I wear stockings even when it was searing hot. (I took them off once. Never heard the end of it.) The first feature article about me after I was elected lieutenant- governor of Maryland criticised me for not wearing rouge (in reality it was there, just faded); the second one castigated me for wearing flats. From then on I wore heels despite the backache they gave me. A former governor criticised my jewellery: "Too many bracelets," he opined. In another rebuke of my style, a writer called me the "unglamorous Kennedy", clearly pushing substance to the side.

When I first ran for Congress in the mid-1980s, I received unending commentary about my hair, just as Clinton has for decades. "Cut it" won out, even though I preferred to wear it longer. My campaign staff insisted I wear stockings even when it was searing hot. (I took them off once. Never heard the end of it.)

Being deemed sexy can be tough on female candidates, too, in ways it isn't for men. Once, before an appearance on Fox News during the 2008 campaign, I heard an animated conversation among some men about Mrs Sarah Palin's positions - and I don't mean policy. In this respect, she was a breakthrough. Until then, male candidates could be considered sexy, but not women. More recently, when I was in a taxi in Knoxville, Tennessee, the driver told me how he dreamed of Mrs Clinton in the White House because she was "so hot". That was different. It's not what she usually gets credit for, but I liked it.

I'm no longer running for office, but often I'm asked to speak about women who do. I open my talk - Women: Taking Power Seriously - by having people close their eyes. "Imagine someone in power," I say. Invariably, most say they envision a man despite being at a talk about women. It's not hard to understand why. Sadly, the US stands out among nations for its absence of a woman as president. Women have been (or are) presidents or prime ministers in Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America.

Why not the United States? For starters, an archetype for a powerful woman doesn't exist in our culture. Without a monarchy, we don't have queens, as Europe does. Our nation was founded on Christian ideals, and we see our God as male.

By contrast, India abounds with powerful goddesses. Our holidays that honour leaders are about men - Martin Luther King Jr, Presidents Day and the Fourth of July for our founding fathers. Our most prominent national celebration of women is Mother's Day - hardly a hats- off to women's roles as statesmen. (Consider that last word.)

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, asking him to "remember the ladies" as men wrote the laws of our new nation. He laughed at her "saucy" letter and responded with words that some people believe still hold true: "We know better than to repeal our masculine systems."

Western culture itself has deep strands that are misogynistic. We blame Eve for tempting Adam and causing our fall from grace. The third-century theologian Tertullian said women were "the devil's gateway", and Thomas Aquinas called them "misbegotten". Thousands of women were burned at the stake in Europe, and in our colonial history they were prosecuted for mystical powers at the Salem witch trials.

Still, in searching for an American archetype for a female leader, we aren't starting at ground zero. Dr Angela Merkel, while German, shows us what a woman who has earned the respect of her fellow world leaders looks like on a global stage. Madam Secretary and The Good Wife portray thoughtful, smart and powerful women on TV. And we can point to an array of women who have influenced our history, from Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan Anthony to the four women who have served on the Supreme Court.

Mrs Clinton carries the burden of all that history and all those stereotypes as the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party. Often before her experience and qualifications are considered, she is called a witch (or worse) and an enabler for sticking with her husband. During her decades in the public spotlight, she has adjusted her style and look, even her name, to adhere to society's evolving perceptions of women as leaders.

Now, as she moves centre stage in the race for the White House, she will be doing more: shaping a wholly new narrative and perhaps creating a new archetype. She will be showing young people how a powerful American woman, on the cusp of winning the biggest job in the world, looks and acts. NEW YORK TIMES

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant-governor of Maryland, is a research professor at the Centre for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'What should a powerful woman look like?'. Print Edition | Subscribe