Why Sarah Palin's Wrong About a Teary Double-Standard

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Sarah Palin said Friday there's a "double-standard" for female politicians who get all verklempt on the public stage.

"I'm sure that I would be knocked a little bit," predicted Palin on ABC's "Good Morning America" about what would happen if she welled up while giving a speech about opportunity and children. The tears that so often accompany House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner's remarks on these topics, in contrast, get a "pass," she said.

"I don't know if a woman would be given a pass necessarily," Palin told Robin Roberts during a sit-down at her Alaska home in wintery Wasilla.

Women in politics have to "be that much tougher," Palin added.

But is that right?

Many of the most prominent anecdotes about the impact of public tears on political fates are as old as the Gran Torino Clint Eastwood polished in the eponymous movie.

These days, we are awash in misty moments and not only do they not seem to hurt politicians of either gender, the most prominent recent instance of a female politician getting choked up actually helped her more than being tough or angry at that moment would have.

Could Hillary Clinton have made a comeback in New Hampshire without her vulnerable moment in a Portsmouth coffee shop in January 2008? Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have credited her emotional response to a question about how she copes with opening a path to victory in the state.

And that gets to the core of the way today's lacrimose political figures are different from ones in years past, and to an important difference in the way male and female emotional responses are interpreted.

Boehner doesn't cry when he's wounded or angry, as Ed Muskie famously did in 1972 while defending his wife's character. He cries because he feels too much. "There's some things that are very difficult to talk about," Boehner said in a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday and renewed conversation about his weepy ways. "Family. Kids. I can't go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can't talk about it."

That same excess of feeling is what motivated Clinton's tears.

Indeed, the real enemy of women in politics is not the occasional expression of vulnerability, but routine expressions of anger.

As Science Daily summarized the latest research on this topic in 2008:

Whether you are running for president or looking for a clerical job, you cannot afford to get angry if you are a woman, Yale University psychologist Victoria Brescoll has found.

Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann at Northwestern University recently completed three separate studies to explore a phenomenon that may be all-too-familiar to women like New York Senator Hillary Clinton: People accept and even reward men who get angry but view women who lose their temper as less competent....

Clinton's presidential campaign has put a spotlight on the question of whether anger hurts a female candidate. The answer, according to the studies, appears to be an unequivocal yes - unless the anger deals with treatment of a family member.

"An angry woman loses status, no matter what her position,'' said Brescoll.

No wonder that Palin -- who is known for her public beefs and squabbles these days more perhaps than anything else -- is seen as unqualified to be president. The more she argues with and slams the press and her enemies, the more her poll numbers fall.

According to an Washington Post-ABC News poll out today, only 8 percent of Americans say they'd definitely vote for her should she challenge President Obama in 2012 -- while 60 percent say they definitely would not.

Maybe it's time for her to give tears a chance.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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