Sex Scandals Don't Close the Hill's Gender Gap

The Democratic Party’s criticism of former Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) for his Twitter scandal made it clear that political parties want to protect themselves from the salacious behavior of one of their own. All of the major sex scandals in American politics over the past decade have involved male politicians, so one could infer that women would have an advantage running for office when they are, statistically, significantly less likely to become embroiled in an erotic affair on Capitol Hill’s watch. However, this tactic is not used by women running for office, showing that female politicians understand Americans are not as fazed by such scandals as the attention given to them might suggest.

In 2010, what was dubbed by CNN as the “Year of GOP Female Candidates,” Republican women running on the national stage touted traditional family values and Tea Party pro-life stances. Yet, this campaigning cadre of women never drew attention to their demographic’s notable absence from sex scandals. Would Christine O’Donnell’s Senate campaign have flourished if she had exploited the then-recent downfall of Democrat Eric Massa, who resigned in shame after allegedly making moves on his male staffers? Would she have benefited from advertising “we know women have fewer sex scandals,” instead of “I am not a witch,” especially when courting conservative voters? The answer, sadly, appears to be no.

It appears that drawing attention to female politicians’ freedom from scandal would not help in the polls, because voters themselves are just not bothered by such scandals. Before Weiner resigned, MSNBC’s “Last Word” host Lawrence O’Donnell confirmed the degree of the public’s acceptance: “Weiner can easily be re-elected ... and nothing has developed in this story so far that would prevent him from being elected mayor of New York, a job for which he is more than qualified and well-suited.” Further proof came in the poll that showed 71% of New Yorkers had not changed their opinions  of Weiner after the politician’s Twitter transgression. Women would certainly hold more than 91 of the 535 seats in Congress if voters were truly bothered by such scandal.

In an era when women are beginning to reverse once overwhelming male dominance in academia, medicine, and law, substantial gains still need to be made in politics. However, gains will clearly not spring from the fact that women are too exasperated with “diapers and bottles and bills and votes and markups” to engage in sex scandals, in the words of Sen. Kristin Gilibrand (D-N.Y.). Instead, change will have to come from a celebration of women as consensus builders and solution seekers with an outlook that separates them from their male counterparts.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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