In 1897 in the small paper-mill town Skowhegan, Maine, a girl named Margaret Chase was born into a world where her mother could not vote. Luckly, that would change before she became an adult. And even more luckily, our Margaret married Clyde Smith and served as his secretary after he was elected to represent Maine’s Second Congressional District (that’s my district) in the House of Representatives in 1936. When Smith died, Margaret Chase Smith was chosen by Maine voters to take his seat, and she served four terms in the House. In 1948, Maine voters sent Margaret to the Senate, and she’s the first woman elected to serve in both houses. In 1950, she was the first member of the Senate to denounce McCarthyism. In 1964, she ran to be the Republican nominee for president, and was the first woman to have her name entered in nomination for President of the United States at a party convention.
But she opened the door by marrying Clyde Smith.
I’ve been thinking about Smith recently, thinking about the paths women can take to power. They are limited. The traditional path was, or so it seems to me, that of Queen Elizabeth I, get born into royality or wealth and don’t have any brothers. Or be young and comely and marry a politician, a movie rock star, a hedge-fund manager, an industrialist. Or just sleep with one.
Interestingly, Margaret Chase Smith never had children. Neither did Olympia Snowe. Or Susan Collins. Fertility and power conflict; and I have to tell you, I adore what Nancy Pelosi accomplished; she did it all; a mother and a woman who rose to power. Most women who try to do it all simply get exhausted.
This week, the New York Times fired Jill Abramson.
Her dismissal, after less than three years in the job, was met with disappointment by some women in the newsroom, and could be perceived as a step backward in the cause of female leadership at The Times and elsewhere in the industry.
Abramson, it’s rumored, was too pushy, too confrontational, too bitchy – she had the audacity to want equal pay and to want to select her own managing editors. As far as I can tell, Abramson didn’t have children, and rose through the ranks of journalists on her own initiative, she did not marry into the job or inherit it as Katherine Meyer Graham, publisher of the Washington Post during Watergate, did.
It’s difficult for me not to consider Hillary Rodham Clinton through this light. Like Smith, her access to the reins of power came with her marriage. Contrarian zic suspects that perhaps Clinton’s husband was only able to rise to power because of her skill. But the door was still the value of relationship with a man, despite Clinton’s servicee in the Senate and as Secretary of State. As she runs for president, I’ll be watching for those words that suggest she’s crossed that line of agreeableness women should not cross; that attitude of seeming meek and agreeable that Smith so skillfully navigated.
Women still seem to be lacking opportunities that don’t depend on bed partners; and relationships with male mentors will be suspect. Someday, maybe, we’ll live in a world where what you can do matters more than your youthful looks and fertility; where you can become president or lead the newspaper of record or a major corporation and be assertive, strong, and female and not be considered bitchy. But right now, the easiest path to power still seems to be trading on eggs, and looking for a mate with status the plight of most women and not being too aggresive.
We still seem caught in a world where man with power are a powerful aphrodesiac for women. I’m anxious to see some sort of flip; men who want to attract the eyes of the corporate dynamo because being close to power is desirable. But women in power don’t have the luxury of being desirable, they have to present as squeaky clean; they have to protect their reputations, and for a woman that almost always means their sexual reputations.
I’m rooting for Mary Barra, the new CEO at General Motors. She worked her way up through the company. We’ll see if she can ride out the problems she inherited, but the rumors are all ready swirling that she’s not likley to survive the company’s ignition-switch crisis. And that would be really sad to me; to see this Stanford grad with degrees in both business management and electrical engineering ousted as the GM board’s sacrificial scape goat.
We haven’t worn the easy paths to power to a comfortable stirde if you’re a woman. There’s that lingering discomfort of women who trade on their sexuality to gain power; be it the starbursts Rich Lowry saw when he first met Sarah Palin or the squandered internship of Monica Lewinsky, the stable marriages of Chase Smith or Rodham Clinton, it’s always a path that leaves doubt about her ability without the powerful man who had the discerning judgement to select her and give her access. But no matter how skilled they are, women who advance because of their sexual partners are suspect by women like me for using their men as a stepping stone, and not doing it on their own; somehow limiting their worth in their own right and diminishing the importance of the trails they blaize.
The women who break with tradition and do it on their own? Keep your ears tuned for those hints that they’re just pushy, bossy, aggressive, demanding or otherwise unfeminine. Just ask Abramson. And hang a prayer flag for Barra.