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Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich shed a few tears at a recent pre-Iowa Caucus event when he was asked to talk about his late mother, who struggled with depression and bipolar disease. News reports about his weepy moment showed up on all the major political news outlets, raising the question once again, "If a politician cries in public, does that make him or her too weak to lead?" Or do those tears make a candidate more relatable?
Tears always seem to make an appearance when it comes to high-profile politics, and the 2012 race for president is no exception. What is harder to parse about those tears is the different public responses those moments get depending on whether the crier is a man or a woman. Some pundits believe tears temporarily saved Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2008, even though she was quickly criticized after that win for going soft on the campaign trail. Her sniffly moment led critics to wonder whether she’d be able to “man up” in the Oval Office if she cracked a little under the primary season pressure. At the time one journalist reportedly wondered aloud, “We are at war. Is this how she’ll talk to Kim Jong-il?”
Notwithstanding her impressive track record of accomplishment as Secretary of State, a now-famous photo showing Clinton covering her mouth, appearing more astonished than her male counterparts during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, raised those “are girls too emotional” for politics questions once again.
Political men-folk aren’t exempt from media attention when they’re overcome by emotion, but they usually come out on the winning side. While Speaker of the House John Boehner has been dubbed the “Weeper of the House” in light of his reputation for crying at almost anything from memories of his childhood to discussions about Iraq War veterans, he’s mostly gotten a pass from the type of criticism endured by Clinton, though Barbara Walters did wonder if perhaps Boehner had an emotional problem.
The political double-standard is clear -- a few tears make women weak and not capable to lead, whereas an appropriately timed moment of watery eyes puts men in a softer light that makes them seem more human and appealing.
As it turns out Gingrich isn’t the only current candidate who’s needed a Kleenex on the 2012 campaign trail. After poking a little fun at Gingrich’s recent teary-eyed moment and assuring reporters that he’s not prone to such behavior, Mitt Romney probably doesn’t want us to remember his own 2008 campaign crying moment when he was asked how he would feel if he lost one of his sons in a war. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain wept at a campaign event as he discussed his diagnosis with colon cancer. And Rick Santorum welled up when he spoke of his young daughter Bella, who has Trisomy 18, a condition similar to Down syndrome which usually claims the lives of those born with it within days or weeks of birth.
None of these men have been judged as harshly as Clinton was over a tear or two. But why? Fair or not, studies have shown that while having a misty-eyed moment reflects poorly on a woman in the public eye, it actually strengthens how people view men. That theory is borne out by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s comments that you’ll never catch her crying in public, as well as the fact that Michele Bachmann has steered clear from the tears, probably by channeling her inner Iron Lady.
There’s no question that a double standard exists when it comes to an outward show of emotions in the political world -- women are viewed as weak and less competent than their male counterparts, while men get the benefit of showing a little humanity to temper their political seriousness.
So as media attention moves from Gingrich’s “Hillary moment,” I have to wonder why we still make such a big deal out of leaders showing emotion and why women get the short end of that stick? Maybe if we just all agree that everyone needs a good cry every now and then, we can move beyond whether it’s newsworthy or relevant. That is, unless someone sees Newt crying over his latest credit card bill from Tiffany’s.
iVillage contributor Joanne Bamberger writes about the intersection of motherhood and politics at her blog, PunditMom. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, which is on sale now at Amazon.com.