Politics of femininity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am

Women play an indispensable role in political affairs. The Statute of Liberty, holding up her torch in New York harbour, is a female figure symbolising freedom and democracy. In many famous drawings, the spirit of the French Revolution is represented by female figures in Roman dress. In China, the Goddess of Democracy created during the Tiananmen student movement in 1989 was a female figure with Chinese facial features.

Yet it is by no means easy for women to participate in politics. After Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee announced their candidacy for the upcoming Legislative Council by-election, Ming Pao ran a half-page report comparing their public images - from their hairstyles and fashions to their manners. The verdict from the two invited stylists: Mrs Chan won by a neck.

Both male, the stylists suggested that Mrs Ip came out a bit too edgy - although her recent efforts to soften her personality have had some success. I turned to some female voters to test this judgment. Surprisingly, only a fraction of them disagreed.

The attraction of softer women - those who show more feminine attributes such as tenderness, caring and elegance - is at a peculiar stage. In the United States, the Democratic Party's frontrunner for next year's presidential campaign, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, have both brushed up their feminine sides in recent years. Senator Clinton appears frequently with children in front of TV cameras, while Mrs Pelosi plays up her role as a grandmother. Gone are Mrs Pelosi as a relentless human-rights fighter and Senator Clinton as a champion of universal health care.

These feminine, even maternal, approaches have succeeded. Mrs Pelosi won her bid to be House Speaker, and Senator Clinton now leads her competitors from both the democratic and conservative camps. The message is clear: tough women are out and soft women are in. The reasons for that shift in the political winds are not entirely clear. In the American context, some observers attribute the change to the pervasiveness of partisan politics. Mrs Pelosi's grandmotherly image softened her rough ideological edges, helping to blunt attacks from Republicans.

By acting more gently, Senator Clinton could compensate for the excessive coolness she picked up along with her professional training, polarising fewer voters. In a nutshell, their womanhood allows the two powerful women to move into the middle ground of the political spectrum. It's a carefully orchestrated strategy.

Do Hongkongers prefer softer female candidates? That remains to be further investigated. Possibly, as in the US, a softer approach catches the eyes of the many voters drawn to the political middle ground - somewhere between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps.

But other factors may also be at work here. Assertive, combative women shatter their traditional Chinese image as nurturers. In a community disturbed by prolonged political disputes, nurturers are all the more welcome.

However, politics always means tough battles. Electoral campaigning requires not only physical strength; the emotional resilience of female candidates is tested by the intense manoeuvring for power. Thus, women in such positions must fight a war on two fronts - meeting society's general expectations of its women while battling in the electoral trenches. Their greatest test is maintaining grace along with the vigour and wisdom required to survive in an ever-changing political landscape.

In a democratic era, the strenuousness of political participation for women is far removed from the elegant world captured by statues and paintings from the past. Today, they need even more strength than their male counterparts. This makes for an immense challenge, as well as an opportunity, for women who can master the delicate balance.

Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit