Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a featured speaker at the conference in Washington this week, but then she backed out, partly because former homeland security chief Kirstjen Nielsen, enforcer of the Trump administration’s loathsome child separation policy, was also speaking. Incidentally, so was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii Democrat whom Clinton had just called a “favorite of Russians” in the 2020 race, prompting Gabbard to accuse Clinton of being “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”
Held at the posh Mandarin Oriental hotel, Fortune’s conference is the kind of event where the seminars have titles like, “Co-Opetition: From Competition to Cooperation,” and where the hallways are lined with pressed-juice stands, and pop-up Dior counters providing mini-makeovers, and many, many advertisements for M.M. LaFleur, which is a clothing brand you never need know exists unless you reach a certain age and income level, at which point its logo will stalk you on Facebook. “M.M. LaFleur Live with Purpose. Dress with Ease.”
Wandering around on Monday and Tuesday (using a press pass, not my life savings), I caught sessions featuring congresswomen Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Old Navy CEO Sonia Syngal and feminist icon Anita Hill. The COO of Rothy’s shoes was there, talking about how to build a viral brand, and so were dozen of audience members wearing Rothy’s shoes — evidence that the COO knows of what she speaks — and I am not going to lie, I was wearing Rothy’s, too.
The summit is one of those why-the-hell-not events, is what I’m saying. As in, I certainly wouldn’t pay for it, but if you want to, go ahead. It’s no weirder than many manly conferences with booths showcasing the latest golf club technology. It’s Goop, but with its feet rooted more on the ground.
Except then, abruptly, it wasn’t. Because Anita Hill finished her Q&A, and the audience members ate our fancy “Networking Lunch,” and then suddenly it was Kirstjen Nielsen on the brightly lit ballroom stage, determinedly dodging every question posed to her by “PBS NewsHour’s” Amna Nawaz.
“I don’t regret enforcing the law because I took an oath to do that,” she said, after Nawaz repeatedly pressed her on whether she regretted signing the memo that greenlighted removing children from their parents at the Mexican border.
Nielsen insisted that she “spoke truth to power from the very beginning” of her tenure, and resigned when it became clear that “saying no” wasn’t enough. But then when Nawaz pointed out that Nielsen had just accepted another position with the administration, on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, Nielsen defended the move: “Are you telling every CEO in here that they should never advise the government?” she asked incredulously.
Nielsen’s interview was over within 15 minutes, and then an event moderator appeared onstage and solemnly addressed the audience: “I know that was intense, and I just want to acknowledge that.”
And then I left the auditorium to get a mango-citrus juice and a perfume spritz and think about Powerful Women.
There’s no doubt that Nielsen is powerful; even before joining Homeland Security, she’d been one of the highest-ranking women in the White House. There’s no doubt that she’s a woman; in public appearances she plays up a traditionally womanly appearance with makeup and high heels.
Those were the basic qualifications for an invitation — but should they have been the only ones? When we talk about “Powerful Women,” should we applaud a woman who used her considerable power to make life difficult for the most powerless among us?
Fortune had titled Nielsen’s session “Hard Questions,” and the questions were appropriately pointed: Nobody tossed her softballs about how she balances work and home life, or how she shoehorns in “me” time. Nobody could have grilled Nielsen harder than Nawaz did, or tried to.
But her presence was so incongruous to the rest of the event — an innocuous, if privileged brand of go-get-’em corporate feminism — that it called into question why we were in that hotel at all.
What, in 2019, is the purpose and organizing principle of an event like the Most Powerful Women Summit? Is it like the Hall of Presidents at Disney World — a non-editorializing showcase of every boldfaced woman Fortune could rustle up to prove that many women are powerful?
Are we saying that Powerful Women are just like powerful men — some good and some bad? Which is true, of course, but then why do we need a separate event for them?
Are we just saying that women like green juice and Rothy’s?
Kirstjen Nielsen deserved to be questioned, hard, for her role in an immensely controversial administration policy. And maybe she accepted this particular engagement, her first since leaving the White House, because she thought she could expect a welcoming audience. One who would embrace her as one of their own because being a lady is rough, am I right? Toward the end of her interview, Nielsen wanly said she thought she was going to be asked more about cybersecurity.
But still, there was something off about it. Here she was, making her reputation-washing debut in a ballroom event celebrating aspirational women, smiling grittily as she informed us that, no, we’d all misremembered the whole past three years.
And most of us had paid $13,500 to be there.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.