What women's rights look like when the two sides come together as one.
What women's rights are when women are no longer manipulated by party rhetoric.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two Steps Forward-----Two Steps Back

Cynthia Ruccia

For me, this past week has been fascinating in its extremes. On the one hand, we saw a huge leap forward for women, something to celebrate and feel enormous pride. On the other hand, we saw some of the same shameful sexist hijinks that truly are getting old and need to stop. Really!!! Let me explain.....

On the bursting with elation front, we saw a first in the history of the world. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil became the first woman to open the debate at the U.N. General Assembly. She used the occasion to champion women calling the 21st century the "women's century" and trumpeting women's economic equality as the key to prosperity. Here's a transcript of her speech. The only thing better than women being in charge is women using their platform to uplift other women. Although women have had a mixed record of bringing other women into the executive suite, it is so frigging awesome to see what happens when things go right on that accord, and this week gave us a potent example of how the world could be if women ran things in proportion to their numbers. So everyone take a victory lap on behalf of President Rousseff's magnificent historic moment. Let's shout, sing, and dance in advance of President Rousseff's forecast, that women will finally be able to take their rightful place in the 21st century, and that such fabulous events as hers will become boringly routine.

However, hmmmmm, two steps back. Sigh. The next event that all of us who ache for women's equality had to suffer through this week made me realize that if the 21st century is going to be the women's century, we've got some work to do. Way too much of it actually. I keep thinking about Hillary Clinton who goes around the world in her position as U.S. Secretary of State championing the rights of women wherever she goes. I have thought that she has set the tone so that a President Dilma Rouseff can follow her example and do the same whenever she has an international platform. It's an emotional moment every time Hillary speaks of women's economic parity. She has been known to say that we women enjoy rights here in the United States that most women in the rest of the world can't even dream of, and in that she would be correct. But that doesn't mean that there isn't trouble in paradise here in the U.S., and it doesn't mean that that final push for equality in the United States isn't going to be brutal.

This week, we had a very public display of what happens to women who rise to the executive suite and what they have to endure. In Ron Suskind's new book "Confidence Men," a disquieting portrait emerged about the women serving in the Obama administration in high profile jobs. We got to hear how Anita Dunn, the White House Communications Director, felt that she was working in such a gender hostile workplace that a lawsuit could easily have been brought. When this information hit the media, she immediately walked it back saying that she never said such a thing. Suskind countered with the fact that indeed she did, and he had the taped conversation to prove it.  So began a maddening back and forth between Dunn and Suskind about what was meant, what was taken out of context, what was said, etc. and so on.

Another example from this same book was a quote by Christina Romer, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors that she was made to feel like "a piece of meat." She too later walked back her comments saying that she couldn't imagine herself saying such a thing. She was also apparently so fed up that she wanted to walk out of a meeting with the president in protest of how badly she was being treated because she was female. Again she later publicly walked that statement back as well. And Suskind also revealed that she had indeed said these things because again, he had tape to prove it.

The point here is not the fact that there was a sexist boys club atmosphere in the Obama White House. That has been a subject of much discussion and accusations of that sort have been made from the get go. Just google "Obama boys club" and you get over 22 million entries. The point is that the sexist things WERE happening and if the women dared speak about it EVEN AFTER THEY'D LEFT they were apparently subjected to enough harassment that they had to publicly walk back their statements, even the ones they were quoted on tape as saying.

I just have to shake my head at this stuff. Women experience this level of pressure every day because in many workplaces, probably most workplaces, they are subjected to all forms of degradation and harassment. In most of those cases, they have little recourse if they are to keep their jobs. And in a difficult economy such as the one we find ourselves in, women will put up with it to a greater degree to hold onto a scarce job. And if women dare speak up about this incorrect sometimes unlawful behavior, they will lose their jobs and they might even be blackballed. It's a lose/lose proposition.

It is very unseemly to see this kind of garbage coming from the White House. I have not used my blog to criticize President Obama at all, but the evidence continues to mount about how this administration has just been inadequate in setting the tone that no sexist behavior will be tolerated. His campaign also completely failed in 2008 to stand up to the mudslinging sexism on display in both the primary and general elections. I guess they saw, sadly, that that sexism worked to their advantage. That would be horrible enough. But even worse, what if they saw it and didn't recognize it? That pattern is emerging from this White House. Most of us Hillary supporters are anything but surprised by this. But what we are surprised about is that they continue to practice this blind sexism and get away with it.

And these reasons are why we still have a gargantuan mountain of work to do in the United States to realize President Dilma Rousseff's vision of the 21st century being the women's century. We are still acting like 20th century sexists here in the United States. Enough already!!!!!!


  1. BRAVO! Right on. TYou hit the nail on the head. Until women have the courage to demand equality they will never have it. No one hands you equality.

  2. Might as well call it for what it is Cynthia-----Obama and his boys are sexist pigs. That's the long and short of it. If not, why not appoint half of his cabinet as women to make the kind of statement that would really matter and really register? It would be so simple for him to make such a bold statement and silence his critics. They just think that by throwing a few crumbs to we women we're supposed to get on our knees and worship him. Not happenin!!!!!

  3. These are smart women who know that while cheaters may actually prosper, tattle tales almost never do and that is what they will be labeled. Don't the women in the Administration have some obligation to ensure that sexism is addressed at its top levels? There quite a few of them there and not exactly wilting flowers (did you see Solis testify before Congress this week? Fierce and bold). Also, the quotes are from 2009- if nothing was done to address it, that's one thing, but didn't the President make some moves to ensure women were better heard/treated? What lessons can we learn, if any?

    I am all for whacking away at sexism wherever we find it- as you know -but I think that women in the environment need to fight it as well. All of the research says that 30% is the critical mass of women needed at the top and the Administration has it. The interesting question that all of this has brought up for me is if 30% really is enough to make a difference? What are the situations in which it's not? Do women at the top have a special obligation to speak out against sexism in their midst or is surviving there and doing good work enough?

    I guess I'm a little disillusioned that there are so many qualified, strong women at the top and yet these challenges still existed (no idea what it's like today) apparently unchecked.

  4. I think Obama will ask Hillary to be his VP this next time around, in order to save his job.

  5. I think it's time for the women in that Admin to call in the US Office of Civil
    Rights. Other women should contact them too.

  6. Kathlene----I suspect that 30% is good almost anywhere except maybe in the government of a representative democracy. Equality is equality.....

  7. "Response to Kathlene Mullens – some of the 30% of the women in the administration talked with Valerie Jarrett, who organized a meeting with PBO to air their concerns. Apparently nothing came from the meeting other than PBO saying that he “needed the men” who were among the prime offenders. It is difficult to be a truth teller/whistle-blower. Research shows that they are the ones who are penalized. You can/should fight for yourself and your fellow women but it doesn’t necessarily change minds and attitudes. Please see Geena Davis’ panel discussion – narrated by Chelsea Clinton - at the Clinton Global Initiative. Little girls see a very limited picture of females in the media."

  8. The main problem with what we are seeing in Pres Obama's administration (and we saw in his campaign) is the result of BAD management skills. Not a big surprise since Pres Obama had no management experience but a good boss, at any level whether they manage a fast food restaurant or are the president of the US, knows that THEY set the "tone" on these kinds of things and the underlings will follow suit. So either this is the tone toward women Pres. Obama is setting, or he has NO management skills whatsoever and doesn't care to learn. Either way, the buck as they say stops with him.

  9. Are you the Kathleen Mullens of FEM who came out as an apologist and drooler for the good that the Obama admin. has done for women?
    Then you seem to take a different tone when you post on this blog.
    I personally will not support now any of your FEM ideas. Get off the fence.
    Sometimes you have to stand up and take a position one way or the other.

  10. Romer and Duncan are covering up for the boys, as they are treated like "meat." That is is their lack of moral fiber and backbone showing. And how dub that they backtracked/lied, thinking they weren't recorded. They fit right into the stereotype of subservient underling women.

    They've won the right to be mediocre, not listened to, and subservient, all along thinking that they are so equal. The President, in agreement with Thia, has NO management skills. He certainly has no backbone, so desperate to be one of the boyz himself. Pretty funny to have 20,000,000 hits for the Boyz Club. The Dems. sure don't look like the party of/fo women to me.

  11. I find it hard to imagine that anyone can defend the Obama administration against all of the sexism it has perpetrated. It's just ridiculous. He's definitely no better than any of the previous administrations. Both Clinton and W had as many or more women in their cabinets, and you haven't heard any of them complain about them the way Anita Dunn and Cristine Romer have complained.

  12. Great post, Cynthia. I've seen employment sexism first hand. I used to work for a major corporation who owned some 300 assisted living facilities in the United States. I worked in the accounting department where all the executives were men and many of the middle managers were women; all of the hourly workers were female.

    As the company started moving toward going going public, suddenly all of these female middle managers were one-by-one either walked out the door, or say that others were walked out the door, saw the writing on the wall, and made haste getting other jobs. All of those positions were then filled with men, including my boss.

    I had a disagreement one day with another hourly female employee because I was apparently doing my work too fast for her to keep up. I took it to this new male boss. He told me, and I quote verbatim here, "That's the cost of working with women." I was gone within a month.

    That happened some four and half years ago and I still steam about it when I think about it, which I try not to do. Sexism in the job world is real, and it happens way more than we'd like to realize. It's led to a lack of opportunity for me because I don't have an ivy league degree or hordes of upwardly mobile friends to network with. Those are the women likely to succeed, the ones with those assets. Us working class girls get nothing but sexism in the marketplace day in and day out. It's enough to make a person give up and/or start hating men.

    Going to read President Rouseff's speech right now, so I can cool off and get some hope.

  13. Whew Anna Belle!!! That's quite a story!! I DID go to an Ivy in the early 70's, studying music composition, a real man's world (and still is all these years later!!). I could tell you stories as bad as yours. It's why I decided to learn to love business, entrepreneurship, and being a part of a company by women for women where I can mentor women from all backgrounds to become the dynamic leaders we were meant to be.

    The thing that really attracted me to Mary Kay was seeing all of those women, unobstructed by sexism, grow into their best selves, something we haven't yet seen much of in the rest of the world.

    So I had to learn a thing or two about cosmetics and listen to a few people make fun of me for my choice of career? It was far better than having to survive at the whim of men who could care less.....

  14. @FishEyes - Yes, I am the Kathlene Mullens of FEM. The research says that we need a critical mass of 30% women at the top. The Obama Cabinet has that and so was FEM Certified. With 30% women, it's an exceptional number of women compared to the averages.

    The early discussions came out around the book that there was a "Glass Ceiling" at the White House, which was inaccurate shorthand for the real accusations if you listened to them: hostile work environment and sexism. We need to talk about the issues for what they are, not in convenient but inaccurate buzzwords. Believe it or not, a lot of people don't even know that the Glass Ceiling is, much less that it is still a very real problem, much less the extent of it. Taking opportunities to educate on these issues is important.

    Further, if 30% really is not sufficient representation to make meaningful change, we need to work towards whatever that magic number is. If it's 50%, let's talk about that number. Other questions that the discussion brought up for me: do women at the top have an obligation to help other women, speak for women or fight sexism at all?

    I'm not on any fence with the glass ceiling issue, sexism, or hostile work environments. All are bad, but, while they may sometimes be interconnected, they are not the same.

  15. @Cynthia:
    I wonder what percentage of the Electoral College is female? I'll have to check that out...I wonder if it's representative of the population it, well, represents?

    Thanks for a great article and discussion!

  16. Great article my friend!

  17. thanks freemenow---hope all is well with you!!

    And thanks Kathlene----don't know about the gender makeup of electors. I think that they change every presidential year, much like party delegates, but I could be wrong about that

  18. Oh, Cynthia, so timely, so maddening, so sad ... and so maddening!

    On reading about Dunn and Roemer denying/retracting their earlier honest observations, my first thought was, "These women are getting back in line, and shutting up, the way they're supposed to."

    From the start, Obama taking on Larry Summers and keeping those puerile speechwriters was a pretty strong signal of the respect (not) women would have in this WH.

    On a brighter note, thank you for the link to Pres. Rousseff's remarks.

  19. JB----that's exactly how I felt and I'm guessing you and I are not alone. It's just that women have learned so systematically to shut up, that even watching the very public Dunn/Suskind conversation, women just haven't commented in any significant numbers.

    What also bothers me about all of this is that the administration apparently felt that even if these men WERE sexist, they needed to keep them on because they were so important. That's how much (or how little) respect people have in how women are treated. It's wrong, but other things are always more important so we'll just let it go this time. and women don't speak up to protest it. And that is how we have come to this impasse------and it's our own fault for letting sexist comments and sexist actions pass. It could be said that in some circumstances women can't speak up without losing their job. Fine. But that doesn't mean that every instance of sexism must be left unchallenged. We need to challenge it every step of the way whenever possible. And there are lots of us who can do it.

    Those of us who were unbowed, unrepentant Hillary Clinton supporters were called racists and received death threats for calling out the sexism. But I am glad we did it. In retrospect, enough of us opened our mouths and protested so that a new dialogue was started.

    Can you imagine if this administration decided to keep on a declared racist because their skills were so important? Well, it would never happen because people are ashamed, and rightfully so, to be racist. It is just as shameful to be sexist, and people know this. We just keep letting sexist comments and actions go by unremarked upon and people have been allowed to become lazy about sexism. No more!!!!

  20. I really liked reading Rousseff's address. I hear she doesn't take any crap from anyone. Why is it that women are rising to run countries around the world but we can't seem to elect one here in the US? I hate thinking that we're behind the curve, but the facts speak for themselves.

  21. @ freemenow - glad to see you back. I was wondering where you were hiding ;)

    @ JB That was my first thought as well. But then the more I thought about it I decided why would they speak out? Look what we do to the women when anything like this comes up. Any time a woman or women can "take down" a powerful guy the women inevitably get shredded and turned into punch lines while the men skate with only minor hits to their reps - or worse they get cast as the victims of those evil scheming women. Look at the treatment of the men vs. the women in any of these "scandals." Who wants to be a Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky? Or any of Tiger Woods "ho's"? Remember all the nasty talk about Condi Rice being Pres. Bush's mistress or the vulgar sexist/racist cartoons? Just because they didn't like Pres. Bush or his policies it was okay to savage Condi Rice? The list goes on and on... I'm not sure I can blame them for not wanting their careers and lives completely destroyed. Can you imagine the sh**storm those Chicago fellas could drop on the "chicks" if they get out of line? Or don't get back in line and deny deny deny?

    It's grotesque :(