As one who has spent years as a communications practitioner, including time as a speechwriter for a respected Clinton administration Cabinet secretary, I was delighted to see that Joe Biden has become the first president-elect to name (highly qualified) women to all of his communications leadership posts.
This makes sense on lots of fronts, including the fact that although women hold a majority of jobs in the public relations/communications field, comparatively few females are found in the very top levels in the industry. No matter if the organization is the White House or a family-run store.
But what nagged at me was some of the social media commentary that followed the appointments, commentary in the vein of, “Well, things are going to be a whole, whole lot shinier, happier and professional on the White House communications front now that women will be calling all the shots.” Which, to be fair, just might be true. We know that science has established a number of areas where women can out-perform men, including scoring on intelligence tests, dealing with pain and reining in narcissistic tendencies.
All of Biden’s appointees (including Jen Psaki, incoming White House press secretary and a former State Department press secretary) enjoy good reputations among journalists as well as political operatives. Then again, it might not be that all of the White House communications offices will be models of complete humanity and efficiency under all-female leadership. Remember that three of President Trump’s four press secretaries have been women. Appraisals of their qualifications and work by journalists, communications professionals and a large portion of the American public have been anything but positive.
And while it doesn’t require explanation that women need to be much better represented in a good many professions and trades, I don’t think it helps women if they are only considered saviors from the realms of the gods, here to kick serious ass and achieve nothing but tremendous, history-making deeds. Such thinking is nearly as damaging as believing that any woman who gets a great job in a male-dominated field either must have slept her way there or had an influential parent call favors in, as opposed to getting the position through hard work, possible sacrifice and traversing maddening gender hurdles.
At times like this, especially when people worldwide are excited that the United States will at last have a woman vice president (as well as treasury secretary), it might be wise to think about that ad from the 1980s, the one that showed an immaculately coiffed woman with nearly superhuman qualities, able to work long hours at an executive job and still come home to cook the bacon and “never let her man forget he’s a man.” I’m one who still hopes we’ll one day get beyond expecting so much of all women.
Some may say I’m being no better than the men (and some women) who have held women back from achieving their fullest potential when I question whether every woman in every job will or should be a veritable Wonder Woman of her profession. That wouldn’t be true. We only need to think of some famous women who probably didn’t have the right qualifications and experience at the right time to take on the very big jobs they accepted, jobs that often became available in large part because people were specifically looking for women for those jobs.
These women suffered as a result, with some of the suffering self-inflicted, and some foisted upon them by a system that remains far from gender neutral in administering employment justice. Sarah Palin, who was named John McCain’s running mate in 2008 when she only had served as Alaska’s governor for about 19 months, is one of the most notorious of these examples. McCain later said he regretted the Palin choice for a number of reasons, including the fact that she just wasn’t qualified for such a role.
Kim Campbell, who served as Canada’s first female prime minister for five months in 1993, was once thought a brilliant star with supernova capabilities in Canadian politics. Her tenure was marked by some accomplishments and some troubles that many have said were not all her fault. Still, there is wide consensus that she was one of the weakest of Canada’s prime ministers.
So, while I wish Biden’s female appointees success, I won’t expect every one of them to turn Washington into a Capital Lotusland. It would be wonderful if they don’t experience the unfair difficulties that have plagued other women who were first or near-first in their fields. And I’m hoping that all of them prove true these words from Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted,” and served as a speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley between 1999 and 2001.
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