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Caroline And The Question Of Cojones

You knew it was going to happen the minute Caroline pulled her name from consideration for Hillary's Senate seat: Today's WaPo has a front-pager (from the fantabulous Anne Kornblut) about Princess Caroline's now defunct Senate odyssey asking: "Does a Glass Ceiling Persist in Politics?"

This is a tricky subject to address. I think the answer to the headline in general is "Well, duh." But do I think the various, often subtle, even subconscious gender hurdles that plague female candidates explain Caroline's troubles, including the shitstorm of negative media coverage she received? Not really. I think people hated the idea of her because she is the rich, politically  unseasoned member of this country's most famous--and famously entitled--political dynasty. And unlike most of the other rich, entitled, unqualified members of political dynasties who rise to high office, she wouldn't have had to stand for election. I personally didn't share the outrage of those lining up to kick Caroline, but I thought their objections seemed pretty straightforward and gender neutral. 

That said, I do think Caroline wound up failing in her quest for some of the stereotypically female reasons that contribute to the dearth of women in high office. Most notably, she didn't want the job badly enough to take the necessary abuse and elbow her way into the seat no matter how painful or humiliating the experience. Like all good princesses, Caroline was genteel and soft-spoken. She didn't aggressively fight back against the wave of criticism regarding her style and substance, and when some personal difficulties arose (taxes? nanny issues? who knows?) she opted to cut and run. 

Compare this behavior to Tim Geithner, who had both tax and housekeeper troubles and yet is still firmly but politely insisting that he is the man to run the IRS. Better yet, how about Roland Burris? The man was appointed to Obama's Senate seat by a governor charged with trying to sell that very seat, prompting many folks to ask how Burris could be so vulgar and shameless in his ambition. The entire Democratic leadership vowed that Ron Paul would be president before Burris would be seated in the Senate. But Burris reallllly wanted that job. So he showed up at the Capitol on swearing-in day and got himself very publicly kicked out. Undeterred, he kept on chugging, chatting up the drama-obsessed media, meeting with members of the caucus. And look at him now! Downing ice tea and warm rolls in the Senate dining room with the rest of the club. 

Caroline wasn't pushy enough. She wasn't aggressive enough. And she wasn't shameless enough to power through all the hurdles in her path and take what she wanted. On the most basic level, I suppose you could chalk this whole mess up to her individual personality. (Certainly, neither Hillary! nor Sarah! would have folded so easily.) But when we're talking about the number of gals on the political landscape in general, it's worth noting that such Carolinian personality traits are not infrequently cited as contributing to the stubborn gender imbalance within a number of fields, my own included.

Indeed, Caroline's wussy handling of her political ambitions brought to mind a piece that ran in the WaPo some four years ago. In it, Zofia Smardz, at that time an assistant editor of the "Outlook" section, tried to address the then-swirling controversy about why there are so few women in opinion journalism. She started off talking about the differences in male and female brains, as well as the role testosterone plays in making men, on the whole, more aggressive, obnoxious, etc. She then went on to share some personal experiences from her days of trying to scare up opinion pieces for the paper:

[W]e make a concerted push to overcome that 7-to-1 male-female ratio and solicit women to write nearly every week. And on all sorts of subjects -- even hard ones, like the budget and taxes and outsourcing and war. Not just "women's issues."

Most of the time, we do tick that ratio upward, winding up with two or three female bylines out of seven or eight stories per section, for an overall batting average of about .275. That's respectable in baseball, I'm told, but in opinionland, it's less than good enough.

So we step up our efforts -- and it does take effort. It would be very easy to fill the section up with men every week. Not so women -- I think in the roughly three years I've been here, it's happened once. Now, I know that's partly because in lots of fields -- foreign policy, economics, nuclear weaponry and, oh yes, science and math -- there simply aren't (yet?) as many women as men to call on. But I still think there's more to it than that.

We have a little running inside joke here: Call a man on Monday, say you're from Outlook and he blurts, "How many words and okay if I get it to you by 5 o'clock?" Call a woman, spell out the idea, have a nice long conversation, ask her if she'll write, listen to the long pause, she says I don't know, I have to think what I'd say (!), you press a little, tell her she can have till Thursday, she says, well, I have class and faculty meetings, my husband's out of town, I have to take the kids to soccer practice, it might be hard, you press some more, she says again let me think about it, can I call you tomorrow?

See? He's already emptying his quiver and she's weighing the pros and cons of shooting the arrow. Or as Gail Collins, the New York Times editorial page editor, said recently, women don't want to read something in the news and then just "bat out" an opinion on it. Not too long ago, one of my colleagues (another woman; the fair sex is more than fairly represented in Outlook) contacted a female professor about writing a piece and first got the can-I-think-about-it response and then, after the woman agreed to write, a request for more time, because, as she said later, "If I was going to stick my neck out in a national publication, I wanted to be sure that I did it right." Personally, I have never heard a potential male contributor utter such words.

Also recently, I called a well-credentialed woman, a former editor of a highly regarded publication, to ask her to write for me. We had a terrific half-hour conversation in which she waxed wise and witty and eloquent about her topic. She spoke in full paragraphs and knew the history of her subject cold -- and she had a strong, clear-cut opinion. I was thrilled, thinking I'd struck gold. I thought she'd be able to toss off a 1,200-word article like that. When I asked if she'd write, she seemed game.

But when I mentioned the deadline, she backed off at once. Oh no, she couldn't possibly do anything that quickly, she couldn't do anything, really, for the next two weeks, she was overbooked, she wouldn't be able to do it justice, couldn't I wait a bit? When I said I really couldn't (this is the news biz; we want everything yesterday) and asked if she'd recommend another writer, she did. Her husband.

Of course, it made perfect sense. He's a well-regarded commentator, too. But you notice I hadn't called him to begin with. Still, as the week wears on, and our deadline for filling our five blank pages looms, and a woman hasn't raised her hand or RSVP'd to our invitation -- guess who's likely to get the gig?

And the men, well, they rarely turn the opportunity down. Need something tomorrow, they say? I can write on the train, the plane, in the subway, the tub, I have 20 minutes between my squash game and the faculty luncheon, I can blow off dinner with my wife's uncle, yes I'm on vacation and my wife might not like it but how much sun and fun can one man take, after all?

They're not doing it for the amount of money we pay, believe me. It's ego, getting themselves out there, making a mark. And having the confidence that they can do it. Guys have sent me pitches for articles that unabashedly describe their "insightful commentary" and "distinguished credentials." Gals, for the most part, tend to send rather demure queries about ideas that have been "simmering for a couple of months." They apologize for the long pitches, hope I can help them brainstorm, prefer to talk things over before they proceed....

Apologies for the long excerpt, but I've always thought Smardz was on to something. Obviously, she was dealing in generalities (as she went on to acknowledge). But her observations certainly gibe with what I've witnessed over the years. And whether you blame it on nature or nurture, it often means women wind up underrepresented in fields that call for an abundance of ego and aggression and risk-taking and conviction in one's own rightness. Opinion journalism is one such arena. Politics is another.  

So while I do think there remain gender-related exterior hurdles faced by women candidates, I doubt Caroline's experience has much to teach us in that area. When it comes to some of the  limitations women often place on themselves, however, she may be a classic case-study in how not to get what you want. 

--Michelle Cottle