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Larry Summers And The Meaning Of Feminism

Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

I reacted as negatively as any woman to Larry Summers's suggestion, back in 2005, that a principal reason that women are still scarce in math and science could be genetic. I also had my own run-ins with Summers when I was still teaching at Harvard Law School. But organizing women to protest Summers's potential appointment to secretary of the treasury, as several groups have done recently, is, quite simply, not what feminism is about.

As Sheryl Sandberg noted on The Huffington Post, Summers made a strong case for women's education worldwide when he served as chief economist for the World Bank back in the early 1990s. Indeed, he told a gathering of the world's Finance Ministers that the highest return investment they could make in their economies was to educate their girls. He also mentored plenty of women when he was deputy secretary of the Treasury and then secretary during the Clinton administration. He appointed the first woman dean of the Harvard Law School. Surely that record of action should outweigh one very stupid remark when he was president of Harvard, a remark for which he already paid, in part, with his job.

Yet in many ways Larry's actual record of support for women, both intellectually and personally, is beside the point. In an age when women are running corporations, universities, non-governmental organizations, and countries (although admittedly not yet this one), feminism should be beyond identity politics, beyond making an offensive statement about women a litmus test for political office in the same way that being anti-choice is a litmus test for many Republicans. Women seeking to integrate professions like fire-fighting and policing fought very hard to establish the legal rule that women can be excluded from a job only if some aspect of being male is a bona fide occupational qualification. That means that the characteristic in question must affect the employee's ability to do an essential aspect of the job. Employers seeking to exclude women or men from a particular job must be able to show virtually all women or men would not be able to perform the job--say, because of strength requirements. Women now need to apply this same standard to men. Unless the argument is that Summers's comment about women was so offensive that he would be unable to manage a staff of men and women, or that foreign government officials would refuse to meet with him, or that American women would have less respect for the government's economic policy, then it is irrelevant to his suitability for the job.

Summers may not be the right person for the job for other reasons--reasons that are related to the content of the job itself. That is for Obama and his transition team to decide. The state of the nation's economy hangs in the balance, a situation in which we'd do well to remember that rising poverty hurts women nation-wide more than men. We need the smartest, most creative, and most effective person for the job.

--Anne-Marie Slaughter