The primatologist Jane Goodall didn’t know she was coining a political maxim when she spoke these oft-quoted words, “It doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman: That’s why there are so many of us.”
The label is being attached these days, hand over fist, to women in public life. Vice President Kamala Harris is our latest “difficult woman”.
Harris was recently hit with an anonymously-sourced Politico piece describing disorganization on her staff, a demanding, power-hungry chief-of-staff, and a curt, removed boss. A parallel hit from Business Insider quoted ex-aides on the “demoralizing” atmosphere in the office of centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona. The articles track with a presidential campaign hit last year by the New York Times which depicted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as a boss from hell.
The Devil Wore Prada has moved to politics. It’s a trend that reaches across America, witness the bad-mouthing of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Sen. Maria Cantwell. Tales of difficult work environments used to focus on the guys — e.g. Lyndon Johnson insisting senior White House aides confer with him while he was getting an enema – but today’s bad-boss stories seem tailored to those Dwight Eisenhower called of “the female persuasion.”
Kamala Harris was fitted with a target on her back the moment she took the oath of office. She had a brief run for president characterized by infighting, leaks, and depictions of the candidate’s evil sister as campaign manager. The ex-San Francisco DA had/has a forceful, prosecutorial style. Seeing Harris take on Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Senate hearings was like watching a wolverine go after a three-toed sloth. She is not one to elicit sympathy.
Harris is also bashed for strategic and ideological reasons. The country’s right-wing media have found stolid, decent Joe Biden difficult to demonize. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Americans, by a 63-31 percent margin, approve Biden’s handling of America’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery.
Harris has been given heavy lifting in fields where the Biden Administration is less popular. She has faced unrelenting sniper fire from Fox News as overseer of what it calls “Biden’s border crisis.” She is a strategist in countering Republican efforts at voter suppression. She fits in with the GOP’s attack line – Biden is being commandeered by the left. She is also vulnerable for being of African American and South Asian lineage. The dog whistles of nativism and white supremacy are heard constantly from a Republican Party reshaped by Trump.
In a broader sense, it’s reasonable to ask: Are women in public life being targeted for character traits for which male politicians win praise? The guys are “no-nonsense,” but similar women are “mean.” Unflattering character traits have been attached since Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, in 1986 became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate not preceded by a spouse. Women have found themselves depicted as insecure, reactive, and prone to fly off the handle.
Dealing with gender stereotypes flummoxed Hillary Clinton in both of her presidential races. She played on toughness and a hardened shell in 2008, only rarely talking about breaching “the last and biggest glass ceiling” by nominating a woman. The 2016 campaign saw a much more feminine Hillary, only to find her confronting a bully and misogynist in Trump. Tell-all books on both campaigns have made much of her outbursts. While Hillary Clinton’s every cuss word is quoted, Bill Clinton’s fabled temper is given a bye.
Difficult bosses do come in both genders and reside in both parties. With women, however, there comes a recurring theme that the “Gentle lady” is in over her head. Sen. Patty Murray had staff difficulties early in her tenure. A D.C. guy was hired as chief of staff and did not mesh with the senator. (The aide’s downfall was traced to an instruction given his secretary, “Hillary, would you get my proctologist on the line?”) So what! The staff found its footing with senior assistants from this Washington.
The Gentle lady/governor/mayor is the “man in the arena, as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, so their actions get scrutiny. Consider the portfolio of Sen. Cantwell. She is a member of three A-list committees -– Finance, Energy and Natural Resources, and Commerce. She chairs Commerce and has been ranking Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources. She has mastered complex issues from derivatives as a cause of the Great Recession, to the need for new polar icebreakers in the Arctic, to Tacoma Smelter cleanup, to dangers posed by aged tank cars in oil trains.
Her standards are admirably high and demanding. One young junior staffer I know had just won promotion as Cantwell’s transportation aide in the spring of 2016. Barely 48 hours later, 16 cars from a Union Pacific oil train derailed in the Columbia River Gorge. Several caught fire. The derailment came just four days before Cantwell was slated to grill U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox before the Commerce Committee.
My staffer friend was tasked with finding EVERYTHING about Union Pacific oil trains, such as vapor levels in the cars being used, and then transmitting every bit of information to Cantwell and answering a succession of questions from the senator. She trained for the hearing like a boxer. Cantwell was dissatisfied with the Transportation Department’s slow pace at requiring safety improvements and suspicious that Fox News was bending to the railroads.
The result: A successful Fox hunt by Cantwell, who was able to deploy the Union Pacific accident into safety improvements urgently needed. My friend the transportation aide was exhausted. He didn’t get credit, for staff rarely win recognition. Once, on a visit to the Wild Sky Wilderness, a guy from Washington Wild tried to butter up Cantwell by praising the work of her environmental aide. “That’s what I pay him for,” she retorted.
Aides and staff can be let go in a minute. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chewed up and spit out successive chiefs of staff while crafting the California Desert Protection Act and the 1994 assault weapon ban. In politics, anyone, anything no longer useful can get jettisoned. Even Socks the family cat was sent packing when the Clintons left the White House, unable to get along with Bill’s dog Buddy.
Still, the burden of badmouthing has fallen inordinately on women in high-profile jobs. Mayor Durkan has been badmouthed for her impatience, although tell-all accounts have taken issue with predecessor Ed Murray for his temper. Some aides haven’t stood the pressure of working for Cantwell. Others have thrived and appreciated the boss’ insistence at being on top of subjects. Such is the fact of political life, a very high-pressure environment.
Since Mikulski arrived in 1987, the lineup of “Gentle ladies” in the U.S. Senate has risen to 23. Harris sits a heartbeat from the presidency. Multiple cracks have appeared in the glass ceiling, but a double standard on conduct hangs on. Perhaps some comfort can come in that the bad-mouthing, which seems to go with the territory of the powerful and the impatient, has targeted several of the most capable people in American public life.
Unsurprisingly, Harris now joins regular Fox News targets as Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Reps. Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -– difficult (and significant) women all.