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Women, Lying and the 2008 Election - Why Women Candidates and Spouses Lie

Raised to Be 'Good Girls,' Women Stretch the Truth Because of Cultural Pressures

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Women, Lying and the 2008 Election - Why Women Candidates and Spouses Lie

Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin

© Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Updated September 21, 2011
Originally published October 10, 2008

Politicians lie, or at least stretch the truth. We know and accept this. But now that women are entering the political arena in greater numbers and running for public office at the highest levels of government, does this change anything? For women who've been raised to be 'good girls,' well...good girls don't lie. Or they don't get caught lying. So how does a woman reconcile this internal conflict - this need to be good - with the need to win? Is there a double standard when it comes to lying and gender - do we hold women politicians to a higher level of accountability than men? Or are women more empathetic to a woman running for office - even when she lies?

Susan Shapiro Barash teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The author of ten non-fiction books, she explores the ways in which women lead their lives and how the culture affects their behaviors and attitudes. Her most recent book, Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie, came out in March 2008.

In a groundbreaking presidential election year in which women have come further than we ever have before, lying has been a part of the political landscape. Lies told by candidates and candidates' spouses of both parties have come to light. Who better to evaluate the lies, their impact, and our subsequent impressions than one who's researched women and lying? In my interview with Susan Shapiro Barash, we looked at specific examples of lies, why Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin reacted quite differently when caught in 'the lie,' attitudes toward the lies of spouses (Elizabeth Edwards, Cindy McCain), and what women think about other women who lie.

In your book, Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie , your premise is that our culture pressures women into keeping secrets, fabricating tales and cover-ups, stretching the truth, and outright lying. Are you finding this as well in the 2008 presidential race with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin?

Based on my research, I believe that women in the limelight in this campaign keep secrets and lie for their cause. How could they not, since women of all ages, social strata, ethnicity, according to my study, have been raised to do this, and are better at handling a secret and a lie than ar their male counterparts. To this end, it isn't specifically about this group of women, but women in general.

Can you cite some specific examples of the little white lies you've seen on the campaign trail?

Several months ago it was Hillary Clinton's recollection of friendly fire in Bosnia and more recently, it was Sarah Palin's 'Bridge to Nowhere,' and a lack of clarity regarding rape victims being charged for rape kits in Wasilla. A secret that was uncovered, (a tough one to hide) was her daughter's pregnancy.

According to the Christian Science Monitor Cindy McCain referred to herself as a only child and if fact has two half sisters. And that she 'lied' about Mother Teresa advising her to adopt two children from Bangladesh in 1991.

Carly Fiorina seemed to backpedal a bit after stating that she did not believe that Sarah Palin was qualified to run Hewlett Packard. In several of these instances, including Elizabeth Edwards' knowledge of her husband's affair, these women fall into a category (in my book) of women lying to themselves. They use this as a coping mechanism, a way to get through when the going gets tough.

Both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have had lies or half-truths they've told thrown back in their faces, You've cited Palin's 'Bridge to Nowhere' and Clinton landing in Bosnia under fire. Palin continued to tell the lie throughout several campaign stops, whereas Clinton said she was tired and misspoke after the truth came out. What's your take on this?

How far a woman lies once she's caught depends on how much she believes her own lie, according to my study. When it comes to the lies we tell ourselves, women are so often invested in the lie that they launder the lie into a truth.

Any thoughts on whether one response is better than the other?

There are times when a woman firmly believes her own lie, as I've cited above, or she believes the value of the lie. This is what I call a 'beneficial lie' in my study, which translates into 'this lie is more important than the truth.'

Does admitting to a lie end up branding the liar, and ignoring the lie leave the liar more wiggle room and no admission of guilt?

In our male dominated culture, it's a trick to discern when a woman is at an advantage for admitting to a lie rather than sticking to her story and sinking her teeth in, even when she's being queried.

The reason that women are often tempted to stick with the story/the lie is because women are held to a different scrutiny than are men. Women are raised to be 'good girls',and 'good girls' are invested in the truth (secrets are sacred but the lie is a mistake). Thus, when a woman lies, she's not only better at it than her male counterparts, but sanctions her own story. We haven't seen many coming forward with the truth among the political women being referenced (except for when Hillary explained Bosnia).

These lies also fall into the 'designated lie' category, meaning "I have too much to lose, my lie overpowers my moral code." This might apply to Cindy McCain's lie about Mother Teresa.

Have you noticed spouses lying or stretching the truth during the campaign?

Cindy McCain is an example, as I've given above. These spouses lie to embellish on occasion and other times to not appear a certain way. The lies that one tells to create a certain image falls into the 'betterment lie' category, which translates into 'I lie to improve the situation.'

How have these lies helped or hurt their husbands?

Oviously with the John Edwards' affair, whatever his wife knew or didn't know, his career was harmed by the event. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Cindy McCain's 'only child' was an 'embellishment.' This we know this came from the campaign itself.

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