Ever wonder why so many women in the upper echelons of politics are millionaires? There’s a very good reason. They can afford protection. The truth that no woman in public service will admit is they really aren’t as safe as they appear. The few who make it often do so because they can afford it.
Women who run for office have no sexual harassment protections and are easy prey. Candidates for political office and others who start their careers in politics as volunteers, interns and consultants often work for free. They aren’t employees, so they have no legal protections against sexual harassment. To make matters worse, 90% of a politician’s time is typically spent asking for money, largely from men. Men are still the gatekeepers of politics and they know how vulnerable women are in this sector. They can freely take advantage of it. For some, it’s a feeding frenzy.
Show Business for Ugly People
A common aphorism tossed around for decades by political commentators is “Politics is show business for ugly people.” It usually gets a laugh and a nod that it’s strangely true. The man often credited with originating the phrase is Paul Begala, chief strategist to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Perhaps there’s some truth to Begalia’s crude quip that he never took the time to fully understand. Harvey Weinstein might be able to help him figure it out. It may be because those who look less sought-after are less likely to become targets. Perhaps the ones who attract too much attention never stood a chance.
As Monica Lewinsky can likely attest, attractive women in public service have been treated like moving, alluring and highly-disposable targets. We are political baubles. In Lewinsky’s 2018 Vanity Fair article, she mentions how, decades after her scandal with Bill Clinton, she still struggles with the PTSD from both her encounter and the resulting gaslighting she endured at the hands of attorneys, reporters and former allies. In the piece, she grapples with the way the President abused his privilege with her. With a man so powerful, does a woman truly ever have the capacity to consent?
Lewinsky’s article also mentions a shockingly important point. She notes that still today the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements struggle to amass the resources women need to defend themselves, to be heard and to recover from abuse.
Drowning in a Sea of People
Women in public service should heed a critical warning from Lewinsky’s experience and #MeToo observations. Currently, you’re on your own. There will be no cavalcade to come save you if a man takes advantage of you. Even some of the strongest women you know will be too afraid of the political and economic repercussions of being associated with you, to stand by you. In fact, you will likely find yourself drowning in a sea of people. And, like Lewinsky, you might not feel like you breathe again for years, or decades.
Women considering public service need to think about how they will afford to protect themselves. They need to ask, “What is my political currency and what are the currencies of those around me?” No woman should go into public service of any sort without asking themselves this question and understanding how the political currency of gender truly works. Not understanding it can cost them everything.
The Price Women Pay to be in Politics
Every person in politics has a political price and a currency. But feminine currency is different than men’s. When a man goes into business or politics he transacts his masculine currency: his wealth or his influence. His influence can be his name, his knowledge, his time, his connections, his ego, his brand, his resources, or (as politics can currently attest) his wrath. Even his own press. Women wield these currencies as well but we have far less and it often comes with strings, which we will discuss next.
Even after 173 years of political advocacy, a woman’s real currency is still on loan and men are still the lenders. For centuries, women have been allowed to wield men’s currencies with their permission: the wealth and/or influence of their fathers; the wealth and/or influence of their husbands, their status as mothers of a man’s family or their own worth as objects of sexual desire. And the latter can even determine how much worth she has with her lender. Men understand the resources they have at hand. This is why women need allies.
Women Still Rely on Male Currency but Men Don’t Need Ours
Look at the women who have made their mark in the world and then look at the currency of the husbands and fathers around them. Rarely will women get to where they are without masculine currency but men can go as far as they’d like in their professional careers without ours. We even work to help them get there. We cook his meals, change his children’s diapers and even do his boring administrative work so that he has time to work more efficiently and get paid exponentially more than we do, if we are paid at all. If and when we refuse these labors, powerful men simply contract them out.
Not All Feminine Assets Are Seen, Nor Should They Be
It is critical that women do a full analysis of their assets. Not all assets are financial but they can still generate wealth. But sometimes what we think is an advantage is actually a liability. (I plan to explain this in greater detail in my next piece so please follow me.)
For example, women should not make the mistake of assuming intelligence is an asset in politics. In fact, demonstrating it too much can be their greatest liability. Again, I don’t make these rules. Men loan us our resources and they can foreclose when they choose. Women aren’t seen as having the allegiance to the status quo that men have. There’s no bro code for us to get in on; there’s nothing to be gained from our silence unless we are the secret. You can’t truly have a seat at the table when you’re also on the menu. There’s no “coordinating interest” as Milton Friedman would say.
A woman must remember which assets are truly hers and which can be taken away at a moment’s notice if she is too self-assured or too powerful. We are expected to “stoop to conquer,” meaning we must take on a role, position, attitude, behavior, undertaking, that is often beneath our abilities or social position in order to achieve our particular end. We are never to demonstrate our true, individual worth.
If we are too smart and too independent there is nothing to keep us from finding the skeletons and calling foul. In some men’s hearts, the separatists especially, they know it’s best that the smart women are kept out.
In my own run for office, I remember once going before the board of directors of a major Chamber of Commerce to be vetted for an endorsement. The board wanted to get access to $40 million dollars in taxpayer money, so that they could expand a stadium and create luxury seating.
This money was supposed to be emergency funds earmarked for small businesses. But I wasn’t supposed to actually look at the budget line that the funds were being taken from. I wasn’t supposed to understand how small business owners could have less financial recourse if a disaster were to shutter their business because wealthy sports fans had new box seats.
When I discussed the broad merits and challenges of the Chamber’s request and how they were asking for a sum that was commensurate with what some of the sports team’s top athletes made, I didn’t realize I had crossed a threatening line. I looked at the dozen white men around the board table (as well as the one token woman and the one token African-American man) and observed the white men looking at one another with a gaze of sheer horror. Why?
Years later, I reflected on that moment with the African-American man who was at the table that day. (He’s the only man from the Chamber who still keeps in touch and coincidentally he no longer works there.) I asked him why the guys looked so afraid. “It’s because they were,” he explained. They knew if I was elected, their taxpayer gravy train would slow to a trickle.
My opponent, a career politician, was more practiced than I was in this regard. In an interview she described herself as “just a simple, country girl”. Ultimately she got the Chamber endorsement, not me. I had much to learn.
Arrive, Be Present, But Not Seen
So how do women survive in a political world controlled by men? I didn’t know what “stoop to conquer” meant until I ran for office and a female political advisor saw that I was making the mistake of being “too strong” and I was branded as “uppity”. We must swallow all desire for our actual abilities to be recognized and valued. Paradoxically we must also struggle to assert ourselves enough in a field that still often refuses to fully see us. If you find this upsetting, you’re not alone. It is.
Women are to play dumb, practice resilience, stay quiet, and pretend not to hear the truth. We are to buddy-up with a gatekeeper and backdoor our way in. Even the late Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg often quipped that to endure, it was wise for women to “be a little deaf.”
Because of all Ginsburg and women like her have gracefully endured, new generations of women can envision a future of hanging on every word, speaking up and being heard. But until then we cannot speak our truth. Not without paying a price.
Currently, female political leaders and their allies must figure out how we are going to afford it.