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"Too emotional to lead."

When the women suffragists marched for the right to vote, the opposing forces had a simple message that paired emotion with physiology. All women, they argued, are "potential hysterics" whose bodies swing with the moon cycles, and who have emotional instability that short-circuits their intelligence. They are constitutionally incapable of aspiring to the consistent rational expertise that is needed to choose our laws, our policies, our leaders. Women are, simply, too emotional to lead.

As the women's movement progressed into the 1960s and 70s, women demanded not only the right to influence policy, but to own it. They demanded entrance to male-only universities, to graduate programs, to the training grounds of leaders.

By then, the argument had shifted. My first application to a Ph.D. program was denied with the simple explanation: "You are 21 and single. We cannot risk investing in you for a couple of years and then have you fall in love and drop out of school to follow your husband." It was no longer my physiology that made me incompetent, it was my psychology. I could not be expected to control my feminine need to partner and nurture. When it arose, I would be compelled by its force, unable to discipline its expression. There it was again: Too emotional to lead.

By the time I began doctoral studies, I was determined to be successful. I remember the date of my first class, September 9, 1976, three days before my son was born. I wished for many things as I attempted to balance my life over the next four years, but never once did I wish that competence be defined differently for me because I was a woman and a mother.

Over the next 20 years, research on the psychology of women and female leadership confirmed what generations of women already knew. Our feminine psyche changed nothing about our capacity to become competent. What it did change was how we use that competence to lead. Given the tools of intellectual rigor and academic excellence, women weave them together with emotional sensitivity to create unique styles of problem solving, decision-making and leadership. Whether you attribute it to hormones or social reinforcement, the cross-cultural results speak clearly. Women lead in ways that are less adversarial, less unilateral. They prefer collaboration to conquest, team building to competition and person-centered to issue-centered problem solving. Emotion is not the enemy of competence, it is an ally. Both men and women could see the benefits of bringing that powerful alliance and unique feminine perspective into the halls of power.

Then Sarah Palin arrived. And with a moose-meat cleaver, she slashed the fabric woven by generations of women before her, and tossed competence into the trash. Intellectual rigor was irrelevant, educational excellence unnecessary, proven job success easily skipped. Only two things were required to be qualified to lead this country, she said with a spokesmodel smile: common sense thinking and a Mama Grizzly attitude.

I hoped when she was beaten, women would take a deep breath and see the regressive mistake they had narrowly avoided. But many have not. Many have adopted her casual attitude and entitled self-confidence. Don't bother me with the facts, the details, the hard issues, they say. I don't need to understand those. I only need to be passionate about my beliefs, my values, my emotions. Is this beginning to sound familiar

Politics has become a contact sport for both genders. The media's voracious appetite for conflict and titillation leaves thoughtful insights on the cutting room floor way too often. But remember this. It has always been okay for the nerdy boy to toss off his glasses and jump into a street fight when the situation requires. He will not lose the respect of his peers, or be thought less intelligent if he shows his aggressive emotional side.

Women, however, dispense with their competence at much greater cost. When I hear "mean girls" comments about hairdos traded by female candidates, I cringe. When I see moments of public ignorance shrugged off with a beauty queen smile, my heart sinks. When that schoolboy taunt of "man-up" is hurled by a woman to show her strength, I am appalled.

This is not a conservative or liberal issue. It is an issue that women of all political ideologies should take seriously. If we stop expecting our female candidates to be intellectually prepared, if we support women who eschew competence as a requirement for leadership, we invite that judgment we worked so hard to cast off. We will all be responsible when the voters say, "I don't know about her policies, but I know one thing. She's too emotional to lead."

November 29, 2010