A different kind of leaning in: The Paper Machete 3.30.13

You can listen to me read this piece here on The Paper Machete/WBEZ podcast of the show. (I start at 4:31)

Here’s my piece from The Paper Machete this weekend. Deadlines are tough; I finished this minutes before I left to go to The Green Mill so the ending isn’t quite what I had in mind, but it works.

I’m also a little concerned this piece drifts into mansplaining but it’s at least grounded in fact, even if it has a healthy dose of barroom argument to it. There are lots of views on this topic so it’d be great to hear some comments on it.

If you liked this piece, please like The Paper Machete on Fcaebook or follow it on Twitter and attend one of its Saturday afternoon shows at The Green Mill. It’s the best weekly live event in Chicago and deserves your support.

On Tuesday, President Obama appointed Julia Pearson to head the Secret Service. She’s the first woman to ever lead the agency charged with protecting the life of the President, the Vice-President and other high-profile people in government. This historic change followed CIA director John Brennan’s selection of a woman to be acting head of the the agency’s Clandestine Service, the part of the agency that goes barreling into the most dangerous parts of the world, risks the lives of its members and can never tell anybody about it. And, of course, this past January the Defense Department lifted the ban on women serving on the front lines in our armed forces.

In short, 2013 has been a great year for putting more women in positions of power so long as those women don’t mind getting shot at. This is probably not what Sheryl Sandberg meant by “Lean In” but so be it. Finally, the decades-long struggle for equal treatment under the law has been fulfilled. If you want to express your support for this, you can change your Facebook profile picture to an image of Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty.

On the one hand, it’s impossible to downplay these achievements. According to the Washington Post, the CIA’s Clandestine Service has “long been perceived as a male bastion that has blocked the career paths of women even while female officers have ascended to the top posts in other divisions.” The same is true of women in combat. It isn’t so much that women should have the right to stand alongside men in the most dangerous combat environments – although they should – but because those positions afford women the best opportunities for advancement and salary in the military. One might call it a “camouflage ceiling”…but only if one wanted to be rightfully mocked for sounding like a jackass.

As for the Secret Service, the image of it – both in reality and in the larger culture – has been wholly male. According to the New York Times, women make up only ten percent of all special agents, which is lower than most law enforcement agencies. Think of the Secret Service and the first image to pop into your head is a dude in a dark suit and dark sunglasses talking into his sleeve, thanks in part to TV and movies. Think of the Secret Service movie In The Line of Fire and you remember Clint Eastwood more readily than Renee Russo. Though a major motion picture gave us a black president at least ten years before it happened in real life, we didn’t get a movie with a woman as the head of the Secret Service – in this case, Angela Bassett in Olympus Has Fallen – until last week. The week before it happened for real.

This coincidence seems minor but it got me thinking that pop culture is replete with roles where women are President yet we’ve never had one in real life. Of course then I remembered when Hillary Clinton got a little choked up on the Presidential campaign trail in 2008. There was talk for days afterward about whether or not she was crying and if she – and, by extension, a woman – was tough enough to be President. Does Pierson as head of the Secret Service put that notion to rest? One would hope. After all, you’re probably tough enough to be the President if you’re tough enough to take a bullet for one.

While putting women in powerful/dangerous positions within the federal government and military puts the lie to the notion that women don’t have the temperament for certain kinds of work, it would be nice if we didn’t wait to put them there until after a bunch of guys turned it into a shit show.

If you’ll recall, the last time the Secret Service made big news was in 2012 when a group of special agents were preparing for the President’s visit to Cartagena. And when I say “preparing,” I mean “having sex with prostitutes” and subsequently arguing over price which is really depressing because you’d think an agency that was originally part of the U.S. Treasury would have a better understanding of currency exchange rates.

Also, the CIA hasn’t exactly been running the tightest ship either recently with former director David Petraeus resigning last year because had an affair with someone and people found out about it because he used Gmail to exchange secret messages with her instead of using Snapchat like really good spies do.

(I’m summarizing the Petraeus thing for the sake of brevity. You can read a full account of it at my website WhyWereWeSoObsessedWithThisFourMonthsAgo.com / SeriouslyWhoCaresNow )

So while putting women in these positions is great, they’re burdened with both the assumption that their presence alone will clean up institutions that have been old boy’s clubs for decades and the equally unfair expectation that because they’re the first they’re representing all women everywhere. Nobody assumes the next head of the CTA is going to bang his memoirist, for example, but when Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer stops letting people work from home it somehow has less to do with whether that’s a smart decision as a CEO trying to turn around the culture of a company best known for hosting your parents e-mail address and more to do with demonstrating to the larger world how a woman can “have it all” even though “all” is different for everybody and most people wouldn’t “want it” anyway.

Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg’s been taking it on the chin for her book Lean In, which discusses the structural and institutional barriers that keep women from getting ahead in the workforce. Rather than judging her arguments on their merits, most of the criticism centers on whether she’s properly representing the outlook of all working women, rather than just those at Fortune 500 companies.

Is Sandberg writing from a position of wealth and privilege? Sure. And there’s an argument to be made that her experience does not resemble every woman’s but I don’t think that was her intent. I’d even be OK with this line of criticism if it meant we were then making room on the bookshelves for women who make 30-50K a year or work at Target or are stay-at-home moms and sending them on extensive press tours. But somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.

All of which brings me back to the woman who’s the new head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. I have to keep saying “the woman” because most people don’t know her name. The reason for that is because she’s undercover. So while she’ll still be the first woman in her position, she’ll likely be judged more on her work and not her name or her background. After watching the press treatment of Mayer and Sandberg over the past few months, she’s probably pretty thankful for that.

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