Women leaders face unique challenges in SA campaigns

by Tracy Landers | 5/1/02 5:00am

With only one female candidate out of five running for the highest position in the student government, this week's election puts a spotlight on the role of gender in campus politics.

Despite the equal number of non-elected male and female Student Assembly officers, it is no historical aberration that Tara Maller '03 runs alone against four men in the campus-wide presidential elections. In the last six years, only three out of the 24 candidates running for president of the student body were women.

Current student body president Molly Stutzman '02 -- the first female Assembly head to serve a full term since 1992 -- kicked a trend of male victory in the elections last year. Stutzman ran against two male candidates. But unlike Maller, she was the only female student running for any campus-elected Assembly position.

This year's all-female vice presidential ballot is unique -- usually the slate contains many male candidates. Nonetheless, several women who are currently Assembly officers said they are not surprised that the number-two position is more attractive to women, since on average women more than men don't seek top leadership positions.

Neither Stutzman nor Maller said they have experienced negative feedback based on their gender.

"I don't know why there aren't more women running. There are more women qualified to be running ... I was kind of surprised, but I think lots of women seek leadership in other areas," Maller said.

Indeed, women tend to be more active than men in service organizations such as volunteer work and Green Key, as opposed to holding elected positions.

This could be a self-perpetuating cycle, Stutzman said, because they see few women role models holding elected leadership roles.

Maller, Stutzman and other female candidates said that they consider their gender in projecting their public images more carefully than their male counterparts.

Stutzman said it was especially important for her to sit up straight and be in command of her appearance "given the fact that you have to look back to the '98s to find someone who can even remember having a female president" before last year's election.

Maller said she is especially concerned with the type of photograph she used on her campaign posters. She first chose a shot that she said she hoped would make her appear serious, but Maller said that this image was criticized for being too formal. Maller is shown in that campus poster wearing a dress suit and staring firmly into the camera.

"If I looked too 'in charge,' it might give people the wrong impression. If a guy had put himself in a button-down shirt and a tie in his poster, he would not have gotten the same response," Maller said.

In her second round of posters, Maller appears against a less charged background -- Baker Tower.

Stutzman noted that Maller's self-confident leadership style, which according to Maller led her to run for president despite having less experience than opponent Mike Perry '03, is unusual for female Assembly leaders.

"Although women are running more and more for higher positions, I think a lot of times the highest limit is vice president. They still don't think about being the one who has all the pressure," Stutzman said.

Explaining this persistent trend, Stutzman said, "women discount their experiences whereas men will discount their faults."

For Maller, this statement does not hold true.

"I feel that the perception is that I'm being too overbearing and that is more negative coming from a woman," Maller said about herself. She continued, "Why would I run for vice president when I feel I'm qualified to run for president? Why settle for second? Whether [my opponent] was a female or a male, that wouldn't stop me from running for a position."

Despite the positive experiences of many female students currently active in the Assembly, not all women have felt equally welcome. Stutzman said Meg Smoot '01, a losing candidate and the only female running against three men for the presidency in 2001, encountered difficulties due to her gender.

The most striking example of a woman's negative experience on the Assembly occurred in November of 1994. Assembly President Danielle Moore '95 resigned due to what she described as a lack of respect for her female leadership style. She said some male Assembly members refused to listen to her, questioned her decisions and yelled during meetings.

Campus reaction to Moore's decision was mixed -- editorials published in The Dartmouth the week following her resignation were divided along gender lines. Male students wrote the three editorials that criticized Moore's decision to resign, while a female wrote the one in favor.

Moore, the first Native American Assembly president, was elected on a liberal platform that specifically promoted minority and women's issues.

"I'm not a politician, I'm an activist," Moore told The Dartmouth. Current female Assembly leaders such as Stutzman, Bonan and Maller do not champion overtly political opinions, which could help explain why they have encountered less blatant opposition to their leadership.

Moore was replaced by Rukmini Sichitiu '95, a woman who had previously been active in the Assembly and said, "as one of the eight female executives, not once have I felt oppressed or abused." Nevertheless, Sichitiu said she agreed that gender issues were not resolved at Dartmouth.

Current female candidates and officers share Sichitiu's continuing concern with the lack of female leadership, but do not emphasize women's issues as part of their platform.

Candidates such as Bonan and Julia Hildreth '05 said they do not think the Assembly has any major gender problems, citing men's and women's relatively equal representation on most of the committees for the past few terms. Out of 58 total Assembly members, 34 are male and 24 are female. This gender makeup is significantly better balanced than last year's 54 to 31 male-to-female membership ratio.

"My gender wasn't really a consideration when I decided to run for office. My reasoning was not that a woman should be vice president, but rather that I should be vice president," Bonan said in an email to The Dartmouth.

Hildreth downplayed the relationship between her sex and the pressure caused by her job on the Assembly, saying, "I sometimes feel that I must meet certain expectations as a female candidate which males are not held up to, but at the same time, I think that much of this pressure comes from within me rather than from an outside force."

This year's three female candidates for the top two offices said that the campaign process has gone smoothly and had only positive things to say about their male opponents.

"Everyone has been friendly, but maybe they're being really nice to me because I'm the one girl among all guys," Maller concluded.