I've traveled from Minnesota to New York, Georgia to Colorado, helping my team at The White House Project inspire, inform, and equip a diverse array of women to take the political lead. Of the nearly 1,500 women we have trained thus far, many invariably ask the above question, and it seems to me a particular injustice that they have to consider it. These women are passionate and intelligent; they have the brains and the brawn to make real change in their communities and our world. But they are cautious - they don't want to sell their soul in the process.
What a week to consider the premise. Eliot Spitzer's unfortunate and unfettered fall from grace has certainly brought issues of integrity to the foreground--but his story is, by some measure, the easier one to dismiss when it comes to the challenge of keeping our political house in order. The issue that has me more concerned, frankly, relates to some presidential campaign tactics of late and what they say to the leaders of the future about what a life in politics might mean.
As much as it has in any election to date, integrity matters this time around. At its core, political integrity is about touting policies and practices not because they are politically expedient, but because of the inherent good such policies visit upon the communities they touch. And when it comes to this question of integrity, women candidates have a particular tightrope to walk: as pollster Celinda Lake has shown us, because the traits of integrity and honesty generally have been allied with women candidates, a male opponent can almost always gain ground against a female opponent by showing a crack in her armor of so-called "goodness."
In the current race for the presidency, for instance, the criticism of Clinton for her votes, particularly on the war in Iraq, is a continual stab at her integrity. And those hits have hurt. But in this race, it's not just Clinton who is susceptible to chinks in her integrity armor. With Obama cast as the "woman" candidate he, too, runs the risk that fissures in his perceived goodness, his integrity, will impact him in ways other male candidates (those not cast as female in quite the same way) would not face.
That fact is one that will be picked up on in the general election without a doubt. But when, in this week's Newsweek, Eleanor Clift spoke so openly and eloquently about her admiration for Clinton alongside worries about her recent campaign tactics vis a vis Obama, it stirred up for me some worries of my own. Because while I believe that it is Clinton's competence and courage that account for her resurrection, I also fear that the campaign's attacks on Obama's armor are working to Clinton's benefit in a way that those of us who care about the integrity of our political system should not be thrilled about.
In the disloyal act of writing that, I hear seasoned political women's voices laughing at my "good girl," politically-disabled mentality. What are you thinking? Did you think she could win without doing these things? Have you studied this for a decade and still are this na´ve? I also realize that these concerns are not about policy or about rights - they involve strategy and tactics, and as my friends remind me, we can all disagree on the latter. And, just like Eleanor Clift, I, too, am afraid I am being too hard on her, and that "what makes her a viable contender is her ability to play hardball."
But that's when I remember the young, disillusioned woman from Chicago, polled in our study "Pipeline to the Future" who lamented, "If you have values or morals, you're not going very far in politics." I hear our aspiring women leaders across the country, inquiring again about the abandonment of integrity for political gain. And I hear the diverse, talented and seasoned women politicians who answer them with candor at our trainings about how they do it. It's obvious that they compromise, but they choose how and when, just as I find is needed in any field, if not as publicly.
To be clear, this is not about holding Clinton to a higher standard than her male competitor - and frankly, given the varied and sometimes viciously misogynistic attacks Clinton has suffered through her campaign (remember those "Iron My Shirt" posters? the Hillary nutcrackers being sold in airports across the country? the inflammatory images all over the internet that depict our first viable female candidate being violated by a donkey?), the tactics being employed by the campaign right now look rather mild. Rather, it is about my wish, on behalf of young women and men alike, that at some point things will be different--that there will be models for them, of whatever gender and whatever party, who will offer resounding encouragement through their example that politics can be a fair and upright foray into changing the world for the better.
Politics - it's a tough business. There will always be leaders who profess the moral highroad and navigate, if on occasion or with regularity, the pathways which lurk beneath. More often, I hope, there will be those who will learn the art of compromise without losing their authenticity and integrity. I think of the firsts, like Senator Clinton, who will have to be tougher than even I realized to get in. I think of the pipeline of women across the country who are eager to ascend to leadership. And I hope that enough women will run for office, to change the process and well as the product, so that we can sell this business of politics to our daughters.
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).