Commentary Magazine

Political Woman, by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

Political Woman.
by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.
Basic Books. 274 pp. $10.00.

The study of women and politics poses a dilemma for anyone who wants to see more women in positions of political power. On the one hand, there is the risk that women will emerge from such a study looking more or less indistinguishable from their male counterparts. If this is the case, then the call for more political power for women sounds suspiciously like an expression of sexual chauvinism rather than a legitimate demand for the representation of a previously unrepresented point of view. On the other hand, if women turn out to be different from men in politically relevant respects, there is the risk that not all the differences will tell in women’s favor; their “female” traits might be used to argue against greater participation and representation.

The particular women that Jeane Kirkpatrick studies in this book seem to bear out neither possibility; but whether they provide support for a general argument in favor of increased political participation by women is another question.

Kirkpatrick begins by asserting that the representation of women in the political elite is desirable—not because women in general have distinctive political opinions, but because “the female sex—like youth—has become a basis of political identity.” The idea that “power should be shared by those affected by it” confers a kind of automatic legitimacy, she thinks, on all such symbols as grounds for a claim to representation. This question disposed of, it becomes necessary to ask why the representation of women is in fact so slight—a question which Kirkpatrick seeks to answer not simply by noting the relatively recent emergence of gender as a symbol of political identity, but by examining the more specific obstacles to a woman’s political career.

One way to study these obstacles, Kirkpatrick argues, is to observe the careers of women who have achieved a significant amount of political power; we can learn about failure, it seems, by studying success. Accordingly, the book reports the results of interviews and discussions with fifty women state legislators across the geographic and ideological spectrum, legislators judged “effective” by legislative representatives of the American Association of University Women, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, and the League of Women Voters. The women legislators talk about their careers, their relations with their colleagues and communities, and their more general views of politics; and the portrait that emerges is indeed a fascinating one.

The “average” state legislator in this group is “a fairly attractive, forty-eight-year-old mother of two nearly grown children. Although she has a college education, she has rarely worked outside the home. She lives in the small town where she was born and is financially supported by her reasonably successful husband, who has encouraged her to run for office. Running for office was an extension of many years of volunteer community service.” Many of the legislators had working mothers, and even more had parents who were themselves active in politics. The legislators are an upwardly mobile group, and they revealed their generally activist styles early in life, through participation in school extracurricular activities. Their lives can best be described as “conventional,” they have shown their bent for “purposive socializing” not only through volunteer activities and politics, but through a wide variety of club and organizational memberships, and they identify strongly with family, locality, and community institutions. They have a high sense of self-esteem and strong identification with their own sex; they are analytic and pragmatic: in their thinking, and display a clear sense of the boundary between ego and external events. In other words, they are very much like their male counterparts.

If there are few interesting general personality differences between political woman and political man, perhaps differences can be found in the ways they actually get and hold political power. But even here, the differences are not so great as might be supposed. One difference is indeed large: the women legislators began their political careers late, when their children were no longer young, and they entered not through occupations such as law or real estate but through volunteer or party activities. But they did not simply drift into politics or get placed there through others’ initiative. Only six gained their jobs without electoral contests, almost half initiated their campaigns by themselves, and even those who were formally asked to run by others took a large part in arranging their own candidacies. The women liked campaigning, they had no particular fear of conflict or of losing, and they deny that discriminatory attitudes toward women posed a campaign problem of enormous magnitude. Some of them, in fact, point out the advantages that their years of community work and community familiarity conferred on them, and speak with a certain relish about overcoming an opponent’s attempt to exploit sex as a campaign issue.

Once inside the legislature, they say, they learned their trade and rose in the same way a man would. They met with early rejections by and awkwardness among their male colleagues, but they report that the barriers to power proved fragile, and that they could be overcome by an attitude of seriousness and the establishment of fields of expertise. They do not feel hampered by any exclusion from the “club” or “locker-room” socializing often thought necessary to a successful legislative career; they socialize less than their male colleagues by choice, they say, and the choice does not harm their effectiveness.



This is, in short, a portrait of political women who are much like political men. But just as important, it is a portrait of women who respond to what discrimination they do face by refusing to blame the outside world. Instead, they try harder. Kirkpatrick’s description of them is exceptionally lucid and intelligent, well informed by the relevant political-science literature and combining dispassion with that degree of sympathy necessary for understanding. She obviously admires the women she writes about, but that is because they are in fact admirable.

Still, an enterprise of this nature is inherently limited, as the author herself realizes. Since these women are indeed the successes, the exceptions, the book may be accused, on the one hand, of ignoring the real difficulties of women’s entry into politics—because those who succeed under current circumstances are equipped with personalities of extraordinary confidence and resilience, because these legislators’ own difficulties have faded in their minds with time and achievement, or because the book seems to point to character as the key to success rather than at those external conditions which would have to be changed to make the political world safe for women as mediocre as their male counterparts. On the other hand, it may be argued, the large political capacities of fifty women do not necessarily invalidate the proposition that women as a whole are less politically able than men. One may disagree with both these viewpoints yet find it hard to use this study as a persuasive refutation of them.

There is a further problem as well: these women legislators do in fact differ from their male colleagues in one respect that is politically rather than only personally relevant. If they can be said to “represent” disproportionately some particular political opinion, it is that public service is a good in itself, that the political arena is the place for making policy rather than trading favors, that one makes one’s way by virtue of expertise and program initiatives rather than by brokering and comradeship. These women are not in the legislatures to advance their private professional careers, they are not there as a steppingstone to higher office, and they are not there to make money or to advertise themselves. They are by no means ideologues or haters of party, but they definitely share a reformist attitude toward their jobs and toward politics in general.

How far such an attitude should dominate legislative bodies is by no means a settled question. But even if one agrees that these women’s distinctive opinions ought to be encouraged, one is struck by an irony: perhaps not the nature of women, but certainly the traditional women’s role, with its freedom from the primary responsibility for family support and from dependence on one’s own career for status, seems to have played a significant part in allowing these women to assume a disproportionately highminded political stance. As Kirkpatrick says, the same “role constraints” which prevent most women from entering politics altogether appear to make those who succeed at it honest, dispassionate, and devoted to the public good. One must speculate that a relaxation of these constraints would produce greater variety, not all of it of a pleasant sort. This prospect is not at all troublesome if one believes, as Kirkpatrick says she believes, that sexual representation is good in and of itself; but if it is, then discovering the virtues of our present women legislators, the task which Kirkpatrick has performed with such skill and clarity, ought to be irrelevant.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.