When I was ten, my best friend’s mom was the smartest woman I knew. She was a 4’9” spitfire from New York City who wore a great deal of black along with a sophisticated perfume never before sniffed in my staid DC hometown. As a young woman, she’d been one of the early Peace Corps volunteers in Africa, and then written a best-selling memoir about the experience. A decade before I knew her, she had been suddenly widowed with two kids under two. She’d dusted herself off, put her grief aside to focus on her children, and eventually rebuilt her professional life as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter’s wife. She used to take me and her daughter to the White House, where we played Spades in the East Wing hallway while she and Rosalind pontificated behind closed doors.
So I listened carefully the day she explained why a woman could never be the President of the United States. She looked me square in the face, put her hand on my forearm, and delivered the devastating news with confidence that communicated, “Even though you are ten, you are mature enough to handle this awful reality.” She told me women could not be trusted with the stress and responsibility of international leadership because of how emotional and unglued we get during “that time of the month.”
Now I laugh about the memory. I understand she was just echoing the pervasive, sexist wisdom of early 1970s America. I am certain even she came to realize what hogwash it was.
But through my tender preteen years, my idol’s words stuck with me. Her logic struck me as illogical. I didn’t know the word “sexism” yet, but I intuitively understood its destructive power.
I wish she hadn’t died five years ago, because I’d love to hear her take on Congressman Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenneger, DSK and other male politicians tripped up by their sexual egos and today’s unblinking media coverage. She’d probably say something as smart and funny as Leslie Bennetts’ recently did in her Daily Beast evisceration “Politics and The Penis”:
“Popular culture has always insisted that women couldn’t be trusted in positions of power because their judgment might be addled by raging hormones. Oh, really? We’re the ones who can’t think straight because of sex hormones?”
Bennetts – a longtime Vanity Fair smartypants – goes onto explain:
“There are so many men whose names have been rendered punchlines by outrageous sex scandals that it’s hard to remember them all, from Clinton to Ensign, Sanford, Hart, Schwarznegger, Spitzer, Craig, McGreevey, Strauss-Kahn, Berlusconi, Weiner — the list goes on and on. Now try to think of women officials brought down by sexual derangement. But don’t hold your breath; you might expire before you came up with one.
According to The New York Times, women in Congress work harder than men, introducing more bills, participating in more legislative debates and giving more speeches. Such discrepancies are found worldwide; ask any expert in micro-lending as a development tool for third-world countries and he or she will tell you that loans are given to women because men squander the money on ‘alcohol and whores,’ as one put it, whereas women hire other women, build new businesses, and elevate the economic level of the whole community.
From Africa to Astoria, men would have more time to perform useful labor if they spent less time trolling for sex during work hours, not to mention in their Congressional offices. Talk about a waste of tax-payer dollars! When high-school and college students used social media to contact Anthony Weiner, some apparently had crushes on him — but even so, didn’t they have a right to be represented by an elected official who was looking out for the interests of the citizenry instead of just looking for sexual targets?”
I have a few friends I’d like to send Bennetts’ essay. Men and women who argue, vociferously, that Anthony Weiner did nothing wrong. Stupid and immoral, yes, but sexting among adults is a so-called “victimless” crime, they say. Some of the same folks argue that DSK’s Sofitel antics do not mitigate his ability to be an effective political leader. Ditto for Arnold Schwarzenneger. Some men just can’t keep it in their pants, they say, but that doesn’t impair their ability to make wise political decisions, to manage a large staff, to lead and govern as a trusted politician should.
The point they miss: sexting, sexual jokes, innuendos, rumors, and overt sexual harassment all create a workplace and constituent climate – indeed, a country — that is offensive to many, unproductive for workplace morale, and confusing and debilitating to many hard-working, committed women (and men). It doesn’t matter if the workplace is General Electric, the White House, or an Idaho volunteer campaign office. When the initiator of the sexual tonality is a person in power, his status and inherent power create an atmosphere where it is damn hard for employees, volunteers, and voters to just say no, to back off from the sexting or sexual banter, even if they recoil from the behavior. Sure, there will always be a few “willing participants” who are not offended by the sight of their boss or candidate in his boxers. But our system of justice is not designed to shelter this unperturbed minority; of their own admission, they need no protection.
This is not to say that we x-chromosomers are perfect or superior to men. I don’t argue that a woman should replace every male political leader in the world. (Although it would be an interesting experiment.) But the time has come to implement zero-tolerance policies for anyone in power who uses their pulpits to further sexual fantasies. That is not what we’ve elected them to do. That’s not what we pay them to do. Let’s not let them get away with it, anymore.