7 Books About the Making and Unmaking of Women Politicians
Heidi Pitlor recommends literature about women in government managing their public image
One of my primary goals in writing Impersonation was to examine the many personae that we adopt in our lives, both in private and public, both in our relationships and in our work. When we encounter others for the first time, what assumptions do we make, and how does this guide our interactions with them?
Impersonation is the story of a single-mom ghostwriter, Allie Lang, who is hired to write a memoir of motherhood for Lana Breban, a high-powered lawyer and woman’s rights activist. Lana is known for her fierce, no-holds-barred language on social media and her galvanizing feminist stunts that have gone viral. Allie must write a book that will soften Lana’s public image and ideally make her more electable.
It should be news to no one that women politicians are held to absurd standards: one must be intelligent but not intimidatingly so; well-dressed but not showy; warm but not weak. The following books address this issue in myriad ways. The intersection of image-making and gender construction is not a small one. My hope is that someday, we may progress beyond judging politicians by outdated norms of gender, and instead choose candidates based on their abilities, intelligence, and effectiveness. One study showed that women leaders have been the most effective at handling the spread of COVID 19 in their countries. Enough said.
When Women Win: Emily’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics by Ellen R. Malcolm and Craig Unger
How are women groomed to run for and win campaigns? This fascinating book traces the inception and rise of Emily’s List, an organization whose goal is to help get women, like Elizabeth Warren, elected to public office.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
What if Hillary never married Bill? This absorbing novel offers a kinder alternate reality in which Hillary is given a fair or at least fairer chance at the highest office in our country. What would the world look like from Hillary’s point of view? What would she have thought about her image makers—and about Bill’s?
Becoming by Michelle Obama
This has to be one of the best written political memoirs that I’ve read, possibly because it is so personal. On the page, Michelle Obama comes across just as warm, intelligent, and funny as in her public appearances. I have no wisdom about the possibility of a ghostwriter here, but imagine and hope that Michelle herself provided most, if not all of the words here.
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister
“This is about the specific nexus of women’s anger and American politics, about how the particular dissatisfactions and resentments of America’s women have often ignited movements for social change and progress.”
From one of our best writers on women’s rights, an examination of the political potential for women’s anger, “feminine” or not.
Election by Tom Perrotta
I love a good satire, and this is one of the best. Tracy Flick is a cult hero in her own right, willing to do anything to win a student council election. But how others treat her is just as revealing as how she treats them. And in many ways, she gets the last word.
The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress by Jennifer Steinhauer
This book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the first year in Congress of “the squad,” or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. It provides context and a look at Congress, and the ways that it has become rather ineffective and bogged down in tradition.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon
Ostensibly a novel about the Jewish holiday, Purim, but in fact, a gorgeous exploration of women near and in power, The Book of V. rages on the page against the overuse of the Madonna and whore archetypes. It is possible to be both Vashti and Esther, after all. Even the disgraced wife of a rising senator in 1970s Washington can rise up against authority and become the narrator of her own story.