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Gender and politics - Joel Hall

Republican Scott Brown's recent win over Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race was a significant gain for Republicans irritated with the Senate's recent Democratic super-majority.

If you include U.S. Sen. Joseph Liberman (D-Conn.), who identifies as an independent Democrat, Democrats still maintain 59 Senate seats, compared to 40 seats for Republicans, according to the U.S. Senate web site. However, Brown's win takes away the Democrat's ability to pass filibuster-proof legislation.

Given that Senate Democrats hold the highest majority they've had since the late 1970s -- larger than any Republican Senate majority during the George W. Bush administration -- Senate Democrats still have the ability to pass just about any legislation they want.

However, that would require the Democrats to all agree on something, which, of late, seems to be a rare occurrence.

Brown's election, though, tells another story that has received less attention. Brown's win is telling of that fact that Americans still hold female politicians to a higher set of moral standards than their male counterparts.

In the early 1980s, while Brown was a law student, he won Cosmopolitan magazine's "America's Sexiest Man" contest. Pictures of a mostly-nude photo shoot he did with the magazine resurfaced during Brown's recent push to fill the unexpired term of the late Democratic Senator, Ted Kennedy.

Granted, Brown's genitalia were covered by his arm, but the photo shoot was anything but modest. Brown has said he used the money from the photo shoot to pay for college, but people are less forgiving of female strip-club dancers, who do the same thing behind the walls of a private establishment. Brown took off his clothes for the whole country to see in a glossy, two-page spread.

I say that, not to paint Brown as a deviant, but to illustrate the difference in treatment. If similar photos had surfaced of Coakley during her campaign against Brown, it would have destroyed her.

I doubt Coakley has those kinds of skeletons in her closet, but because Brown is a "dude," his photo shoot was treated by voters as the innocent, adolescent doings of a virile, fresh-faced, young, struggling student.

It is easy for female political candidates to be labeled and dismissed as harlots, even without taking off all of their clothes. One-time, vice presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin, is a perfect example of the challenges female candidates face when they are even somewhat attractive.

While Palin often cracked under media scrutiny, some of that could probably be attributed to the kinds of questions she was asked during the campaign. From the very start, the media and the public were more focused on her status as a sex symbol, rather than on what her thoughts were about public policy.

A Newsweek cover of Palin wearing a sensible top and running shorts became the source of a whirlwind of controversy. If Vice President Joe Biden was seen on the cover of a magazine in jogging shorts (not that anyone would want to see that), in all likelihood, it would quickly become an afterthought.

Female candidates are often criticized for the way they appear, even when they are dressed professionally. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has often been criticized as trying to be too much of a man, simply because she prefers to wear pantsuits.

Women's rights have come a long way since the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, however, we continue to treat them differently when they enter the political arena.

If America is truly going to stand up for the ideal of "all men are created equal," women need to be included as well.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.