Where are all the pres­i­dent’s women?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus Colum­nist Ruth Mar­cus is syn­di­cated by the Washington Post Writ­ers Group. Her email ad­dress is ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com.

WASHINGTON » “Does any­body lis­ten to women when they speak around here?”

There were 11 peo­ple seated around the ta­ble in the White House Blue Room, de­bat­ing the fu­ture of the Dream­ers over honey sesame crispy beef, when House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi tried to make her point — only to find the men talk­ing over her.

The in­ter­jec­tion, first re­ported by The Washington Post’s Ash­ley Parker and con­firmed by Pelosi’s of­fice, did the trick: “There was, at last, si­lence, and she was not in­ter­rupted again.”

There are so many things to say about this mo­ment — even more 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 woman 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 — 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 high­pow­ered 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 testos­terone­heavy administration.

How can it be, in 2017, that only four of twenty-four Cab­i­net 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.

OK, 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?

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