The Chaste Ways of Female Politicians

The Chaste Ways of Female Politicians

Fifty years into the sexual revolution, why is it that female politicians don’t get embroiled in tawdry scandals nearly as much as their male peers do?

Women make up 16% of the current Congress but account for nowhere close to 16% of its illicit behavior. There have been a few scattered scandals in recent decades: Helen Chenoweth, an Idaho congresswoman, admitted to an affair with a married rancher but had already declared her retirement from office. Sue Myrick, running for re-election as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., confessed to a relationship with her husband while he was married to another woman (and managed to win anyway). State Rep. Katherine Bryson of Utah was caught with a lover on a surveillance camera and opted not to seek re-election.

But the whole crew of female miscreants from the past 30 years barely keeps pace with the male politicians dominating just the latest news cycle: the one who texted a racy picture of himself to a young admirer ( Anthony Weiner), the one who wrote love notes to a mistress in Argentina while pretending to hike the Appalachian Trail ( Mark Sanford) and the one who had a taste for high-end call girls ( Eliot Spitzer)—all of whom recently decided that they have been punished enough and the world needs them in office again.

Ah, the hubris of men! Their insatiable appetites and biological drives! The natural tendency in such matters is to attribute the differences between men and women to our varying animal natures. Evolutionary psychology tells us that men, especially powerful men, feel invincible and entitled to spread their seed, and that women can’t resist the scent of masculine power. Women, by contrast, are said to be more altruistic and collaborative, seeking power so that they can share it with others. Plus men find women with power threatening, which leaves them with fewer options.

There might be some truth to all this, but it isn’t enough to explain something so complex as transgression and desire, especially when gender roles are changing so rapidly. I imagine that the reason powerful women have fewer affairs is because they don’t dare to, not yet.

Women in high positions are a relatively new phenomenon. They face the same pressures as a path-breaker such as Jackie Robinson, who was warned by his coach that he was being watched and had to set a good example. Every congresswoman surely endures the same strains that drive some of her male colleagues to have affairs: lots of travel, families far away, heady work that makes a domestic routine seem distant and boring. But the stakes are much higher for women, because they are still judged by a different standard.

Today it is still hard to imagine a middle-aged married woman bouncing back from a full-fledged scandal, though men do it all the time. When Nikki Haley, now governor of South Carolina, ran for office in 2010, two men swore publicly they’d had affairs with her. But enough voters decided not to believe them, which was the only way Gov. Haley could win the race.

Will it always be so? Not if we read the latest signs. According to the General Social Survey, younger women are cheating on their spouses almost as much as men: About 20% of men and 15% of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful. Women, like men, now spend late hours at the office and travel for business; they can text or email themselves into an intimate corner just as easily as men can.

And though “sexy” and “powerful” used to exist in opposite realms for women, that’s no longer necessarily the case. Economist Catherine Hakim sees sexiness and charisma as “erotic capital” for successful women and argues that it gives them an advantage in the marketplace. In the TV show “Veep,” the female vice president, who is far from altruistic or collaborative, has a bag man who worships her and an ex-husband she still lusts after. As we get used to women in power, we are likely to discover that they behave much like powerful men—vain, entitled, always looking for more.

When the young Krystal Ball ran for Congress in Virginia in 2010, risqué photos appeared showing her dressed as “naughty Santa” at a Halloween party with her husband. Ms. Ball lost her race but left behind a manifesto for the next generation. Society, she wrote, “has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere.”One day we may find ourselves ready to look past their indiscretions too. Read more…

© The Wall Street Journal/Hanna Rosin

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