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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a very different subject that's much in the news: politicians behaving badly. Can you open a newspaper these days without reading about one or another male politician acting up?

Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, John Ensign, need I say more? So as this Women's History Month comes to a close, we started wondering: Are women politicians doing any better? The answer, according to Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, they're too busy doing their jobs to cheat.

But in all seriousness, does something distinguish female politicians from their male counterparts? Who better to ask than NPR's own Cokie Roberts? Roberts grew up in a political household. Both her parents served in Congress. Her mother, Lindy Boggs, was the first woman to represent the state of Louisiana. Cokie has covered Washington for many years and written a number of books about women in public life.

Cokie, thank you so much for joining us.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Michel. Always good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, is Senator Hutchison right? Are women more focused on their jobs, at least the women politicians you've covered?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, let's put it this way, we don't see a lot of scandals among women. And her point that, oh my Lord, you're trying to keep the kids straight and the job straight and get back and forth between houses. And of course she is a Republican woman from Texas who - she actually, interesting, Michel - as a senator, and now she is in her mid to late-60s, adopted two little children who are really young enough to be her grandchildren.

So this was a new balancing act for her to have these children. But she was echoed by Kirsten Gillibrand, the young senator from New York who has an 18-month-old baby and others. And Senator Gillibrand said, you know, you're in the middle of diapers and bottles and bills and votes and markups and you, I mean, how could you possibly think about doing anything else? And you know, they're joking on the one hand, but on the other hand, they're not. They take care of their families and take care of business.

MARTIN: Kay Bailey Hutchison is quoted in a piece by Politico covering the breakfast in which you moderated that panel and she says with all the multitasking women do, who could plan that whole scheme? Getting a flight to South America?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: No Appalachian Trail, all of that.

MARTIN: No. Do these women talk a lot about this?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And they are such a valuable voice in the United States Senate and in the House for that reason. They are living the lives that most American women are living. So they are constantly putting issues of interest to women, children and families at the top of the priority pile.

You know, it's not that the men in Congress don't care about child care and public housing, they care about those things, too, but they're just not high priority items for them.

MARTIN: Can I ask you to put your news analyst hat on? There are those who are speculating now, that one of the reasons this monumental health care overhaul legislation was adopted last week, in part, was that Nancy Pelosi was in the chair - Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in that role. She was saying that, you know, health care is personal to women.

On the other hand - I mean, you call this group of 17 women serving in the United States Senate the last bastion of bipartisanship, yet none of these, there were no Republican votes for this health care overhaul.

ROBERTS: No, not on this issue. Although, there was some Republican input, particularly in the Senate, and particularly on the part of Republican women, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. But Nancy Pelosi brings all of the attributes of a mother and grandmother into her job as speaker.

You know, I used to say that in terms of covering Congress as a reporter, you know, that the best preparation for it was motherhood, because you did, you know, feel like saying on occasion, I don't care who started it, I'm stopping it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: But Pelosi really has the patience of a grandmother, but also the steel of a mother, because she would not let members out of the room until some kind of an agreement was made. And, you know, she's very self-aware that she is doing this as a woman. And she talks about the fact that she broke the marble ceiling in the Congress, reaching that high constitutional office, not just a political office, constitutional office of the speaker. And says that it makes a tremendous difference for women and girls, for her to be in that position.

MARTIN: You've called this, as we said, this group of 17 women serving in the Senate, the last bastion of bipartisanship. Do you think - is there any hope of seeing more of that? I mean, as we've talked about a lot of in the last couple of days. This seems to be a fairly ugly time in politics.

ROBERTS: I don't see - no.

MARTIN: You don't think so?

ROBERTS: I have no hope at the moment, unless the voters really say we're tired of this. We're tired of the game playing, we're tired of the finger pointing, we want people to come together. But the women in the Senate are very clear on this. They say, quite explicitly, that not only do they enjoy spending time with each other - which they do, regularly, they have a regularly set up dinner together - I always accuse them of just wanting to be in a testosterone-free zone. But they are very clear that legislation emerges from their time together.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about one of the most prominent women in public life at the moment, Sarah Palin, who seems to contradict quite a lot of what we've been saying. On the one hand - she is a mom, being a mom is a very big part of her identity, as we know. On the other hand, bipartisanship doesn't seem to be her thing. It was for a time and she was serving as Alaska's governor. But that is nowhere in evidence now. Hugely popular on the right of the political spectrum, and yet, last week, Chris Wallace of Fox News was on Don Imus' radio show talking about Sarah Palin, and I'll just play a short clip of that conversation. Here it is.

(Soundbite of radio show "Imus in the Morning")

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Host, "Fox News Sunday"): We are going to have the first Sunday show interview ever with Governor Sarah Palin. We're going to be down in Nashville with her at the National Tea Party Convention. And I'm excited.

Mr. DON IMUS (Host, "Imus in the Morning"): When she - when you interview her, will she be sitting on your lap?

Unidentified Male: Geez.

Mr. WALLACE: One can only hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know what I mean? And what's up with that? What's up with that?

ROBERTS: It's appalling. It's just appalling, it really is, you know. It's the last place that men feel that they can just make jokes. They would never make those kinds of jokes about a minority - you'd be in terrible trouble. But you can still make sexist jokes about women and get away with it.

MARTIN: You know, but what's intriguing to me about this exchange is that I think we typically see those kinds of jokes as a tool of social control. Like, that's a way to put you in your place, who do you think you are, honey? Sit down. And, clearly, you know, Fox - obviously, Sarah Palin is a Fox News contributor. They like her. She's on their team, and yet they're still making these kinds of jokes. And I'm just - what is that?

ROBERTS: Being a guy trumps being an ideologue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: And that the way that they can make another guy think they're cool is to make a joke like that. And that is just the way it's always been. Now, I find it very interesting that she says, in these Tea Party rallies, we're not going to sit down and shut up. Which is, of course, one of the things that feminists have been saying for a long time. And she has identified herself as a feminist. And I think that she is subtly appealing to women when she says that, because that is that sense of sit down and shut up, you know.

MARTIN: Well, it's not fair to ask you to speculate about this, but I am interested. Where do you think she goes next as a figure in our politics?

ROBERTS: Well, she continues to have very negative ratings in the polls as a whole. And I think that's where she is at the moment. Now, whether she can overcome that by convincing people of her seriousness, we'll see. Women in both parties in the Senate are of the opinion that she made a mistake in leaving her post as the governor of Alaska. And that, you know, it kind of plays into an image that if people are mean to women, they quit, and that she really hurt her political chances by doing that.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, as I mentioned, you've spent a lot of your career examining women in politics, the lives of influential women. We've just mentioned there are 17 women serving in the United States Senate right now. At one point there were nine women serving as governors. That number's down to five now. You know, where does this go? On the one hand, these are historic highs, on the other hand, you know, half the population are women.

ROBERTS: It's still really low. Right.

MARTIN: And half the population are women.

ROBERTS: You can get pretty depressed when you look at those numbers. It's still very low at the top of the Fortune 500. It's unbelievably low in the boardrooms. But the only solace I can take is to say that women didn't get suffrage until 90 years ago. My mother was born before there was suffrage. So, when you look at it in those terms, there are tremendous advances. But there's still a gaping gap between where women are in the world and where woman are in positions of power.

MARTIN: NPR's senior news analyst Cokie Roberts has spent a lifetime observing, covering and analyzing American politics. Her latest book is "We Are Our Mothers' Daughters." And she was kind enough to take time out of a busy week to join us, Cokie. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROBERTS: Always good to be with you, Michel.

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