Can’t Win: Prominent Women and the Gendered Double Standard

by Kathleen Goodwin

Merkel_ladypocketsIf you haven't visited, it's worth it for a laugh. In the words of creator, Katherine Fritz, “instead of writing the great American Novel, I made a fake fashion + lifestyle blog where I tell you where to buy Ruth Bader Ginsberg's earrings.” Gems include a photo of Christine Lagarde gesturing from a podium wearing a flower-patterned scarf with the caption, “Frankly, if we had to deliver some less-than-sunny news about Eurozone inflation rates at the World Economic Forum, we'd opt to spread a little springtime cheer with this rose-print floral scarf too.” As well as the familiar “Who Wore it Best?” trope, which includes adjacent close ups of Joan Didion and Harper Lee, both pictured wearing tortoiseshell glasses. My personal favorite is the feature on Angela Merkel, which incorporates a caption that reads, “She may have a doctorate of chemistry, but sometimes the key player in the European financial crisis lacks the basic science of how to flatter a tricky figure”.

As Fritz explains, “the joke is evident” but while the site is obviously tongue in cheek, it deserves a bit of analysis. Is the gag how bizarre the captions read, where the accomplishments and intelligence of the woman in the spotlight take a backburner to her accessory choices and the cut of her pantsuit? When a woman is a world famous writer, head of a global organization, or an elected official; is it pertinent to comment on her color coordination? The joke is truly multi-layered in its absurdity, because it reveals a reality. Regardless of their career choice, all women in the public eye are subject to discussions of things that have nothing to do with their jobs and responsibilities. In the Author's Note of Hillary Clinton's recently released memoir she writes, “I considered a number of titles…My favorite was 'The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It's Still All about My Hair.'”

Powerful women are held under a microscope for their appearance and behavior in a way that men are not, giving the media and the public endless source material to scrutinize, and deflecting attention away from truly critical matters. Yet when women try to eschew the rigid expectations of femininity and assume typical masculine attitudes and practices, they face an equally strong backlash. The result of this obvious double standard is what I'd characterize as a “can't win” dilemma that all women, regardless of their recognizability, contend with on a daily basis. Women are regularly criticized for being both “too masculine” and “too feminine” and conversely also face criticism for not acting feminine enough or not adopting sufficiently masculine characteristics.

This gendered lens is obvious when it comes to appearance; the media would never spend time covering the shoes Obama chose to wear to a state dinner, nor would the public deem this a matter of significance. However, when it comes to other personal matters, such as a person's family life, this double standard is applied most viciously. Specifically, the public's inclination to judge prominent women as adequate mothers and to use maternal ability as a basis to vet a woman's ability to perform other tasks. Meanwhile, men rarely seem to face scrutiny for being uninvolved fathers, and fathering capabilities are not typically part of the necessary criteria by which the public determines a man's worthiness.

Mary Barra, who was appointed the first female CEO of General Motors at the beginning of 2014, has recently been subject to a harsh media gaze, justifiably so in the midst of controversy pertaining to preventable deaths caused by faulty GM cars. But as John Oliver explores in his May 18 episode of “Last Week Tonight”, the media has latched on to Barra's gender as legitimate grounds to criticize GM, instead of focusing on the obvious morally corrupt practices of the company, which should transcend the chromosomal makeup of the person in charge of it.

Oliver shows a clip of “CBS This Morning” where a commentator has the audacity to remark about Barra, “She's a mom with two kids. Her first responsibility isn't as CEO of the company, it's [as] a mom with two children and she could personally relate to those people who lost their family members”. Oliver responds to this clip with his usual pointed sarcasm, “Right, because everyone knows that people without kids could barely give a shit when thirteen people die.” Beyond the obvious absurdity of the commentator's words, the implied double standard suggests that it is permissible or even expected for a female CEO to prioritize her family, when it would certainly never be suggested that a male CEO should attempt to do the same. In reality, considering the weight of the scandal that GM is facing, it is neither socially or professionally acceptable for its CEO to be framing this controversy in terms of his or her own family, the discourse should be about preventing more deaths and making reparations for the ones that have already occurred. I admire that throughout this 10 minute segment Oliver spends the majority of the time ripping into GM for its negligence and poor handling of its public image and comparably less time making this news story a lesson on gender norms. He points out the blatant hypocrisy, but doesn't fall into the same trap as the sexist mainstream media, where Barra's being a woman and a mother becomes the focal point instead of corporate responsibility.

In the political sphere, we are obviously in the midst of a Hillary Clinton centric news run, but other high profile female politicians have also been subject to criticism that their male counterparts would certainly never face. For example, Wendy Davis, the Texan democrat who became a household name literally overnight one year ago when she delivered a filibuster in the Texas senate to block a restrictive abortion bill. Davis is currently approaching the critical months of a run for the governor of Texas, already a fierce battle in a historically red state. Davis has intelligently built a campaign along the lines of her narrative as a hard-working single mother who has overcome the same sort of obstacles that Texans face today, and less on her principles as a democrat. This tact, while seemingly successful in persuading some voters, has left her open to criticism of her personal choices.

By the age of 21 Davis had lived in a trailer park, dropped out of college, and was the divorced mother of a two year old. By the age of 27 she was married again, now a mother of two, and enrolled at Harvard Law School. Nine years later she was elected to the Fort Worth City Council, and nine years after that to the Texas senate. It is the sort of pulled up by your own bootstraps tale that the American public loves, even before Davis became a hero for fighting for women's abortion rights by speaking for eleven hours straight without even bathroom breaks. And yet, Davis is subject to cynical and laughably targeted scrutiny— Robert Draper contacted her now ex-husband and daughter to specify exactly how often Davis traveled from Massachusetts to Texas during her time at Harvard Law to visit her two children for a piece in the New York Times Magazine in February. He printed this account after a number of Texas newspapers published conflicting numbers:

“[Davis] said, her commuting routine was ‘10 days at school followed by five days at home.' Her daughter Amber remembers differently, telling me that her mother ‘flew down every two weeks to be with us' for ‘a long weekend.' In Jeff Davis's memory, ‘Her goal was to come back every third weekend. And she didn't. I'd say once a month would be closer.'”

Is the NY Times really taking the time to determine exactly how often Wendy Davis saw her daughters over a three year period when the significantly more newsworthy angle is that Davis was admitted to Harvard Law School in the first place? Draper, unfortunately falls into the same trap that Oliver barely avoided, he later makes it clear how absurd it is to be squabbling over these details, but he gives the subject validation by using line space to verify the specifics— as if Davis's ability to be governor depends on the total days she spent with her children nearly twenty-five years ago. It's akin to discussing Christine Lagarde's choice in scarf at the World Economic Forum instead of the European debt crisis. And it is, unfortunately, the kind of attack that only women seem to face.

As Jill Lepore cuttingly writes in the New Yorker, “By the standards applied to Davis, who left her two young daughters with their father so that she could go to law school, most candidates elected to office in the United States in the past two centuries abandoned their children.” The double standard is palpable— men and women can't win elections without putting their personal life in the open and yet this gives the public permission to scrutinize their personal decisions. Women, far more often than men, can't seem to win when held up to this test. The criticism comes from both sides of the aisle and is not just restricted to being an insufficient mother, female politicians have also faced backlash for focusing too much on their families. Draper's article redeems itself in part by discussing this hypocrisy and quoting the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christie Whitman, who “recalled having herself been chided for spending time on vacation with her children after her primary race for governor — proof of lacking fire in the belly — just as Davis is now being condemned as a maternally deficient careerist for not spending enough time with hers.”

It's a hopeless catch-22 for female politcians, who gain votes by prioritzing family issues, but are critcized in turn for their inability to be both super-mom and a super senator. And why when well-known fathers go away for school or on vacation no one seems to care if their children were present? As Draper writes, “no one ever stopped [Bill] Clinton, Bush or Obama in his biographical tracks to say: ‘Wait. If you were out there, conquering the world, then you could not have been here, with your family.'”

It is naïve and unrealistic to expect the public to view both men and women solely for their intelligence and abilities, rather than their personal lives. In fact, I do agree that a person's individual decisions and experiences can, in specific circumstances, reflect her moral core and her ability to excel at other sorts of jobs. However, the change that I ask for is two-fold, 1) that we, as a society, don't allow dialogue on someone's personal life overshadow our ability to respect and trust her as a CEO or a politician or in any other position and 2) in the cases where personal lives are pertinent, that we don't allow men and women to be held to blatantly different standards.