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Stand up to sexism, Christine Whitman tells women of both parties

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 30, 2008 - The vice-presidential debate at Washington University Thursday will put gender equality under a microscope, said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, in a non-partisan talk on Laclede's Landing last week.

Whitman, who was also head of the Environmental Protection Agency during President George W. Bush's first term, will be watching to see how the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, relates to the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Specifically, Whitman will watch to see if Biden can walk a fine line -- be tough but not to be too tough on Palin for fear of causing a backlash.

As Whitman, New Jersey's first and only woman governor sees it, a face-to-face televised debate under the watchful eye of millions of voters may be the only place where a woman has any kind of an edge in politics.

She spoke this week to about 140 St. Louis women at the St. Louis Forum monthly luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel. Forum members are St. Louis women leaders in business, arts, politics and civic affairs.

The moderate Republican urged the women to be on alert for sexism in the public forum and not to take it passively. Women need to stand up by writing letters of criticism to offenders -- political parties, candidates, newspapers, radio and television stations and bloggers. A small but determined group of letter writers can change congressional votes, she said.

This year she's seen plenty of sexism in political races, she said.

Whitman takes bipartisan objection to the way women have been treated in 2008 campaigns. When Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, was on the road campaigning for president, she was chided for her pants suits and for her hairstyle, Whitman said. At one point, Clinton was even ridiculed for her laugh. 

Male candidates are not criticized for wearing the same blue suits, Whitman said.

Palin has been criticized for her hairstyle, too. But harsher criticism has been directed at Palin's running for vice president when she has a child with disabilities. Men are not held to the same standard, Whitman said.

"When Sen. Biden's wife and child tragically were killed, people didn't tell him to stay home to care for his children," Whitman said. In fact, party leaders and others rallied around the newly elected Delaware senator and insisted that he be sworn into office, she said.

Whitman, 62, is a third-generation Republican activist. She got into national politics working for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign. From 1994 to 2001 she served as New Jersey's governor. Bush appointed Whitman administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001. She resigned that post after 2 1/2 years. Since leaving the EPA, she has been critical of the Bush administration in her book "It's My Party, Too: Taking back the Republican Party and Bringing the Country Together."

Politics is no different that the business world, Whitman told the women. Too often women suggest an idea only to have it brushed aside, she said. Then, minutes later a man suggests the identical idea and the whole group talks it up, she said.

Hums of agreement rippled across the room.

If more women voted and ran for political office, that might change, she said. She invited the women to consider running for office and persuading other women to run.

Today candidates in primary races go so far to the right or the left to attract the dedicated primary voters. Then, when candidates are elected, they have taken positions that are so extreme, so "black or white" that it is difficult to work with the opposition party and compromise, Whitman said.

Former female Democratic elected officials were among those on their feet to give the Republican moderate a standing ovation.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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