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10 October 2008

Beyond the Palin – tales from Newsweek’s “Women in Leadership” forum

Earlier this week, I attended Newsweek magazine’s event, which both examines and celebrates women in leadership. It’s held in the spectacular setting of the New York based American Museum of Natural History, and attracts a high profile and eclectic crowd of women and men from politics, the arts and business. PwC US were once again a sponsor, with several of our Partners serving on the advisory committee, and they kindly invited me along to listen and observe.

The opening panel discussion, entitled “Power and Politics”, was kicked off by Newsweek Managing Director Ann McDaniel, who reminded us that, a year ago, the then newly-elected Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, had been amongst us – “clad in leather jacket and cowboy boots” – so who knew who would be sitting next to us this year?  The panel – including author and former White House Press Secretary (in the Clinton administration), Dee Dee Myers, was moderated by Claire Shipman of ABC News, who opened up with the statement that:

“This is an historic election year, with as much focus on the women in the race as on the men.”

Dee Dee Myers suggested that Palin is causing a split between women; she’s revitalised the McCain campaign and speaks directly to a large part of the US electorate and yet is also the caricature being lampooned so successfully by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” – which reminds me to note a quote from Ms Fey in which she observed, ruefully, that:

“I was reluctant to acknowledge there was a resemblance. But my kid saw her and said, “That’s Mommy” so I thought, Oh, great.”

(On the same note,  I heard Palin’s “gosh, darn it” speech mannerisms being described earlier in the week by a (male) commentator on American National Public Radio as making her sound “like Marge from Fargo”)

Michelle Barnard, a political analyst from MSNBC, noted that Palin’s presence had created a great: “… wave of debate about the nature of feminism …. Until Palin, many women on the political right felt disenfranchised. But now, she’s shown that there’s a different way to be a feminist: it’s OK to be anti-abortion and pro-hunting.”

She continued with this theme by suggesting that women with those beliefs had never been represented, until now.

“Sarah Palin has shot and killed the old feminist movement.”

Bay Buchanan, a political commentator on CNN and FOX News, then went one step further and posited that Palin has:

“… Taken a plateaued movement and moved it to the next level.  She has also proven to women everywhere that you can be yourself – it’s no longer about trying to be like or dress like a man.”

Actress and activist Rosario Dawson weighed in with the view that Palin, like Barack Obama, represents change to a younger generation – I’m sure I was not alone in holding the thought captive that that was perhaps ALL they have in common.  However, she also noted that:

“A lot of people find it appealing that she is relatively young, and a mother … for some people, it enables them to look past her politics.”

I apologise now for not catching this next speaker’s name, but she was seated in the audience rather than on the stage, but yet was a de facto panel member.  I gathered from her wealth of knowledge and statistics that she is a respected pollster, and she spoke with great conviction about the issues which have been proven to compel female voters – namely, security and affordability.  She also suggested that her organisation’s survey indicated that both Obama and Palin are viewed as “likeable” and that they also pass the “are you like me?” test which so often compels voters to cross traditional party lines.

Apparently, in response to the poll question: “Who best understands women?” Obama scored 52% and McCain 18% when voters were polled in July, pre Palin joining the Republican ticket; however, by the end of September, McCain’s score had risen to 44% following the addition of Palin. 

Dee Dee Myers then suggested that, if we wanted to see what progress looked like, that we view a few episodes of the 1960s set TV series “Mad Men”, with its depiction of women as either housewives, secretaries or chain smoking, unfulfilled, department store heiresses.

“Let’s leave Palin [as a person] alone and instead debate the hell out of her policies!”

The discussion continued, with the point being made that women voters now have the power to decide who will be the next President; the Republicans have realised that women make the bulk of society’s economic decisions and are also more likely to actually VOTE.  One of the key issues facing McCain and his team is that they have only a few short weeks to convince some very worried people – and this goes to the issue of affordability – that Palin can handle the economy. 

Several panellists agreed with the pollster’s statement that Palin is very appealing (in a political sense? Perhaps not necessarily so) to working men –

“… Don’t underestimate this; Bush got elected because people felt that they’d like to have a beer with him. The charm factor comes into play very strongly for Palin – people do seem to like her.”   

The point was also made to this strongly urban and New York-centric audience that only 28% of Americans live in major conurbations such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; Palin has a strong appeal for many of those who live outside the big cities.  And:

“Nobody is now saying that there shouldn’t be a woman on the ticket – the debate is more around which woman.”

Myers added that, in her view, Palin had acquitted herself:

“… well against [Joe] Biden [in the televised VP debate].  True – she may not have much experience but, then again, nor does Obama.  But she does appear to have the qualities to help her succeed.”

To loud applause, Bay Buchanan declared that:

“Women candidates [and I think this is equally as true of women in business as in politics] cannot go out there and say – ‘I’m a girl, don’t be mean to me’ – we have to realise that perceived attacks and debates are part of the process for both genders.”

And the panel agreed that, whoever wins next month, Palin’s selection is a plus for women and it’s opened a debate – if not a Pandora’s Box. Palin’s reaction to the mockery has been an example – she has shrugged it off, after five weeks of criticism and satire. 

Good gig for Tina Fey, though.

The conclusion was that, just as Hillary Clinton redefined the role of a First Lady in the early 1990s, Sarah Palin has redefined the role of a Vice Presidential candidate.

Although the second panel was entitled “Power and the Workplace”, it was again heavily focussed on politics, with yes, particular light being cast on Sarah Palin. This panel featured Tina Brown, who told us that she is working on another biography, following the success of “The Diana Chronicles”; this book will be called “The Clinton Chronicles.”  With her customary frankness, Brown declared that:

“I disagree with almost everything she [Palin] says – and yet I admire her, too …”

- And my own personal view was that many of the liberal women in the room shared that degree of ambivalence.

The final session was a Q&A between actor (“I don’t like to be called an actress”) and educational activist Cynthia Nixon (wearing a pair of absolutely fabulous Christian Louboutin shoes) and the greatly-admired-by-me writer Anna Quindlen, which was a gentle and admiring trot through Cynthia’s career, in which she suggested with personal conviction but in the face of ill-concealed tittering from much of the audience, that: 

“Yes, “Sex and the City” was a feminist show – absolutely! It was about four very different women making four very different types of choices.” 

I’m not sure that Anna was convinced, and nor was I, but anyway – Cynthia was bright, charming and does great work on both the stage and as a breast cancer awareness activist, so we’ll let it go …, unless you agree?

Veteran broadcaster and interviewer Barbara Walters was the luncheon keynote speaker and she discussed her just-published memoir with us and then signed the copies we were each given in our gift bags.  I later discovered that the book itself – hardback, $29.95 list price – weighs a mighty 3 kgs – as that was the amount by which my suitcase was overweight at the airport.  I swiftly removed it and carried it as hand luggage.  Not even the greatest book in the world is worth a $100 excess baggage fee. Sorry, Barbara.

Finally,  I know that at least one person reading this will be thrilled to know that I spoke very briefly with the extremely charming Gayle King, known to many through her association with Oprah Winfrey and her involvement with many of Oprah’s corporate projects, such as “O” magazine.  She was absolutely delightful and is probably the closest I will ever come to brushing shoulders with Oprah! 

Many of the women profiled at the Newsweek event are featured in the October 13th issue of “Newsweek” magazine (guess who’s on the cover?)  so check it out either on the newsstand or on-line.

I’m now back at home and will be spending the next few days finishing both the video and the trailer and preparing for our sponsorship of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, France.  More on the movie next week. Buy popcorn!

One final thought: a thing that I noted during the course of my week in the US, has been the somewhat marked absence of Clinton, H, from the proceedings.  With only a few weeks to go, I’m wondering when, if at all, she’s going to make an appearance and stick it to Sarah Palin.  Isn’t she the one person who could do so without being charged with sexism?      



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