Who are the power women of the U.S. midterms?
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin answers questions from the audience as she speaks to the Liberty & Freedom Foundation in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. (AP / Paul Sakuma)
Meghan Casserly, Forbes.com
Published Sunday, October 31, 2010 7:45AM EDT
The midterm elections are days away, and this year an overwhelming number of female candidates, commentators and influencers are commanding the headlines, brashly driving the conversation and labouring to deliver who will control the Senate, the House and the future direction of the country.
The forces that put us in this position come in the form of various political baronesses and upstarts that make up this Top 25 Power Women of Elections 2010. A great many of these mighty women appear on Forbes' list of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women, including Tea Party queenmaker Sarah Palin, First Lady Michelle Obama and Rachel Maddow, a cable news anchor with a beef against "extremists" in politics.
Yet the polarizing are, in some ways, those who matter most. Or at least provoke chatter most. Consider Mama Grizzly Sharron Angle, clawing at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's seat from Nevada and whose challenge to the incumbent is to "man up." Or contender for the U.S. Senate from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell, whose open ignorance or misreading of the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state--"You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?"--caused a 10-alarm fire on the airwaves and Internet.
Or Maureen Dowd, who coined the phrase "Mean Girls" of the midterms (talking about the Tea Party sorority), saying that they have replaced "Hope with Spite and Cool with Cold." Or the California governor's race, where Republican Meg Whitman was labeled a "whore" by her Democratic challenger's aide.
To rank this list of powerful women, we looked at both their reach--in terms of constituency and audience size--and buzz--Google searches and Factiva hits. This is not a registry of the establishment in heels (or sneakers, if you're Maddow). It is a snapshot of today with a lingering shadow: What will this list look like in a week? A year? Where will this take us in the future?
"This election cycle there are a lot of women in high-profile positions across the country," notes Kathy Groob, publisher of ElectWomen.com, a blog dedicated to electing women to public office, citing the New Mexico governor's race between Republican Susana Martinez and Democrat Diane Denish as both high profile and history-making. "No matter what happens, we'll definitely see the first woman female governor in New Mexico."
Sarah Anzia, a researcher at Stanford University with an expertise in American politics, says that it's interesting to note the shift in issues when two women compete for a single appointment. "Many of the issues where women traditionally have the most strength--like education or welfare policy--tend to fall to the wayside when two females are running against each other."
Case in point: the tightly locked California Senate race between incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and GOPer Carly Fiorina, where the state's failing economy has taken center stage.
Groob, a former Democratic candidate for the Kentucky Senate, points out that, beyond candidates, the role of women in the coverage of U.S. politics has seen advances this year, pointing to Christiane Amanpour's Sunday morning news program, This Week, as an example of women breaking barriers in the traditionally male-dominated beat of political reporting.
"Those shows have always been dominated by guys," she says. "Take Rachel Maddow's program or her spot on the Meet the Press roundtable. And every Sunday Amanpour (who did not make the top 25 on the Forbes list) has much more gender balance in terms of her guests--and will continue to, so that's definitely to be considered marked progress."
Asked if 2010 is the second coming of the "Year of the Woman" (so named for 1992's landmark election of four women into the Senate), Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, says no.
"In 1992, women's issues were really driving the election cycle," she says. "The Family and Medical Leave Act was an enormous topic for debate." She notes that the female candidates were campaigning on female-friendly platforms, and there was a lot of discussion of introducing a female influence to "clean up" the politics of the Senate.
In contrast, the female candidates running in the midterm have made little noise on women's issues. Ange-Marie Hancock, an associate professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California, sees the shift as progress. "I think it's the broadening of what many feminist women wanted when they stepped into politics in the 1970s," she says. "Women were able to choose for themselves what their issues were rather than being lumped together or forced to conform to what the public says as 'women's issues.'"
Groobs agrees: "We've broken that barrier and are now able to stand on our own and discuss issues like the economy and jobs and immigration. These are the issues trumping all issues this year," she says, while noting that so-called women's issues still have a long way to go.
In terms of the relationship between the American media and female political candidates, it's worth noting that women have received (grabbed?) an enormous share of the nightly television news pie this election season. Whether it is a result of the number of tight races women are locked into, however, or of the media's penchant for highlighting bizarre or extreme behavior (which female candidates have certainly given them plenty of fodder for in 2010) is a point of contention.
"This [Forbes] list says more about where we are in society than it does about where the power will fall at the end of the election cycle," says Lawless. "These women ... like Krystal Ball or Christine O'Donnell. don't necessarily represent the best of U.S. politics--or even the best we have to offer--but they are making up the dialogue surrounding this campaign cycle."
"To be fair," Lawless adds, "I would say exactly the same thing if presented a similar list of male candidates. It's just the state of things. The media is covering the excitement. There has been very little debate and deliberation on policy, and so there has been even less media attention paid to it. Of course it's not rare, but the circumstances in the country are rare. You would think if there were ever a time for real dialogue and action in the country, this would be it."