“Does anybody listen to women when they speak around here?”
There were 11 people seated around the table in the White House’s Blue Room, debating the future of the “dreamers” over honey sesame crispy beef, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to make her point — only to find the men talking over her.
There are so many things to say about this moment — even more given it transpired in the week that saw publication of Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 campaign, “What Happened.” Because while what happened will remain the subject of fierce debate, it is also important to consider the implications of what didn’t happen: the election of the first female president.
Imagine the alternative reality of President Hillary Clinton’s White House and her dinner with congressional leaders. By definition, Pelosi wouldn’t have been the only woman in the room. By dint of her authority, no one would have been talking over the president.
Ironically, Clinton writes about a moment that is the mirror image of Pelosi’s interjection, when she chose to stand down rather than speak up. During the second presidential debate, as Donald Trump stalked her on the stage, “literally breathing down my neck,” Clinton writes, she faced a choice: “Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up, you creep, get away from me.’ ”
Where Pelosi chose to call out what she interpreted as sexist dismissal, Clinton calculated that confronting Trump, gratifying as that might have been, was too risky. “A lot of people,” she notes, “recoil from an angry woman, or even just a direct one.”
Did Trump behave boorishly on the debate stage because of Clinton’s gender, or would he have loomed similarly behind a male opponent? Did the guys in the Blue Room feel entitled — consciously or subconsciously — to talk over Pelosi because she is a woman? It’s impossible to know, yet many, if not most, women have had that unnerving sense that they are being diminished, that their points are being discounted and that their gender plays some role. Pelosi made the smart move for her in that moment; she doesn’t need to be Miss Congeniality. But Clinton’s was probably the more familiar choice: Don’t stir things up. Don’t be a you-know-what.
As much as women seized on Trump’s “nasty woman” put-down and transformed it into a slogan of empowerment, the uncomfortable truth remains that navigating any environment — whether a political campaign or corporate workplace — requires women to hunt for the elusive spot between too pushy and not assertive enough.
Clinton addresses that reality and the accompanying challenge for women to be accepted as leaders. “I suspect that for many of us — more than we might think — it feels somehow off to picture a woman president sitting in the Oval Office or the Situation Room,” she writes.
If that assessment is slightly overstated — notwithstanding any such discomfort, Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump did — still, here we are, in the Blue Room with Pelosi and the guys. Did that, to use Clinton’s term, feel somehow off to Pelosi — or, I suspect, entirely familiar, like so many high-powered meetings she had been at before? And if Clinton 2016 put even more cracks in the glass ceiling, we also must weigh the problematic implications of Trump’s testosterone-heavy administration.
How can it be, in 2017, that only four of 23 Cabinet-level staff members are women, half the number of the first Obama Cabinet? How can it be, in 2017, that of Trump’s 42 nominees for U.S. attorney positions, only one is female? (Of President Obama’s first 42 choices for U.S. attorney, 12 were female.)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disputed the implications of that statistic. “I think that the president has certainly surrounded himself with a lot of strong women in various positions, including myself in a pretty high position,” she told reporters, also citing White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks.
Okay, just asking: Where were those strong women the other night, when all the president’s men felt so free to talk over the woman who had been speaker?