Niketa Brar: The way through the glass ceiling

My post-election high is wearing off. As is common with the onset of sobriety, the reality that’s left is a lot less exciting than what I had imagined in my head. And it’s making me cranky.

With all the talk of achieving equality and breaking glass ceilings lately, someone seems to have forgotten the arena in which we’ve taken a giant leap backward. While the election of the first African-American president is certainly remarkable, the damage done to the prospect of a female commander in chief doesn’t represent change I can believe in.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to underestimate the magnitude of electing the first African-American president. But I will not pretend that this election has erased racism, sexism or any other barrier standing in the way of future political candidates.

Yes, this election did see the candidacies of two powerful women for the top two elected positions in American government. But it also saw two campaigns that fell apart for reasons related to their candidates’ femininity – or lack thereof. While Gov. Sarah Palin’s intrinsic inability to be taken seriously became the butt of Saturday Night Live skits, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s precisely chiseled professional demeanor became her downfall. While one lacked substance, the other lacked grace. Ultimately, neither option was particularly appealing.

Where the pantsuits drew snickers, the $150,000 “looting of Neiman Marcus” invited sexist remarks. Then there’s the makeup artist who took home the biggest staffer paycheck – $22,800 in the critical first half of October. Gov. Palin’s campaign was an embarrassment to women. Sen. Clinton’s campaign was a reminder of how far we still have to go.

But both campaign failures bring helpful hints for the next big female politician. Pantsuits make a woman scary. Red pumps make them sexy. Now, sexy is good – it helps you attract the fawning of leaders like Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. But when Katie Couric’s innocuous questioning can effectively “grill” you, perhaps its time for a little pantsuit.

With Hillary and Sarah representing extreme ends of the feminist spectrum, it’s time to find a compromise. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait for another generation to bring her into politics. We’ll just have to wait until Jan. 20.

Michelle Obama has managed to do what neither Hillary Clinton nor Sarah Palin have achieved with their varying degrees of political experience. Combining her fearless feminism with an independent voice, Michelle is everything political women need to be.

I do not doubt that Michelle Obama’s image is just as micromanaged as those of both Hillary and Sarah. Yet somehow, her team has managed to get it right. Facing the threat of being an intimidatingly strong female, they tossed out her pantsuits and had her adopt fashion-forward dresses as her staple. But no one is trying to disguise her full resume. The package they’ve sold us is that of an incredibly bright and terrifically beautiful woman every girl in America should aspire to emulate.

Michelle and her team have balanced this powerful image with the grace, poise and every feminine attribute that is considered virtuous. In interviews, she’s reflected on her role as a mother foremost, but there is no doubt that she will use her unique position in the White House to further her beliefs.

Unlike the last Democratic first lady, however, there is no apparent political aspiration in her motives. Instead, her actions will appear to come from a place of responsibility – where Michelle will do the things she believes in because, well, she believes in them. That’s the beauty of Michelle O.

The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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