Ruth Marcus | Not Part of the Territory

Washington – What is this, middle school? I was all set to sit down and write about women in politics, and applaud Tuesday’s results, when off pops the new Republican nominee for senator from California, Carly Fiorina, with a comment that takes you back to the cattiness of the school cafeteria.

Fiorina, all miked up but not yet ready to be on the air — and, I think it’s fair to suggest, perhaps not ready for prime time — described an aide who saw her opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, on television “and said what everyone says: ‘God, what is that hair? Sooo yesterday.'”

Adding insult to insult, Fiorina didn’t back down when asked about the comment by Fox’s Greta Van Susteren. “I was quoting a friend of mine,” said Fiorina, who lost her hair during cancer treatment and is now sporting what my mother would call a pixie cut. “My goodness, my hair’s been talked about by a million people, you know? It sort of goes with the territory.”

No no no no no! It does go with the territory that women in politics have more attention paid to their appearance than male candidates. It doesn’t go with the territory that one candidate — female or male — gets a free pass for dissing an opponent’s looks. For heaven’s sake, John Edwards got in hot water during one debate for joking about Hillary Clinton’s choice of jacket. The point of having women in politics was not to produce a “Mean Girls” sequel in the form of the California Senate race.

So what I was going to write was a lot cheerier. It wasn’t just about how many women won on Tuesday: Fiorina and Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman in California; Sen. Blanche Lincoln against the pundit-decreed odds in the Arkansas Democratic primary; probable GOP gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley in South Carolina; Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle in Nevada. It was about how the typology of female candidates has changed even as the phenomenon of being a female candidate has diminished in importance.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of PTA moms — they’re not just PTA moms anymore. Or widows and daughters of male politicians. Fiorina and Whitman are former chief executives of major companies (Hewlett-Packard and eBay, respectively). Lincoln is an incumbent senator. Haley broke some kind of gender barrier as a female candidate for major office caught up in an alleged sex scandal. Angle seems like a nut, but at least a self-made nut.

Meanwhile, as The Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut pointed out, “gender never became much of an issue” in this year’s campaign. In California, former and would-be future Gov. Jerry Brown will be, literally, the odd man out among three female candidates at the top of the ticket. The nation’s largest state could easily have a woman in the governor’s chair and, however the election turns out, will continue to have two female senators. That’s pretty remarkable.

“It could be a bit of an indication of something resembling progress,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Kornblut about the election results.

Alas, that was before Fiorina’s unfortunate detour. Carly, talking about your opponent’s looks? Sooo yesterday. And when middle-schoolers get caught talking trash, a grown-up makes sure they apologize.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group