With so much focus on the bad behavior of men in positions of power, there has also been increased attention on the question: Wouldn’t it be better if there were more women in positions of power, too? Conservatives bristle at the idea of electing or appointing people to roles to meet certain demographic targets, but it is hard to suggest that it is perfectly fine and natural that, say, less than ten percent of Republicans in Congress are female. The Trump administration has taken heat in recent weeks for appointing relatively few women to positions in the federal judiciary. The current makeup of the Trump Cabinet includes women in only four of the twenty-three Cabinet level roles.
Just last week, we got one step closer to an improvement in those numbers. Kirstjen Nielsen’s nomination by President Trump for secretary of homeland security was advanced out of committee, with a final vote on her confirmation is expected shortly after Thanksgiving. Nielsen, an eminently qualified choice, holds the distinction of being the first nominee to the Department of Homeland Security post to have previously served at the department itself. That experience, says Fran Townsend, Nielsen’s former colleague from the Bush administration, is a major asset. “Her ability to understand the inner working of the department, the inner workings of that bureaucracy, are enormously valuable,” said Townsend when I spoke with her about Nielsen’s nomination.
But if you’re the sort of person who believes we as a society have achieved gender equality and women pursuing prominent roles are treated fairly, boy, have I got news for you. If a woman rising in power is too tough or aggressive, she’s attacked for it. If she’s attractive, she’s accused of having used that to her advantage. And even if a woman is beyond qualified for a role, there will always be those who raise doubts about if she’s really qualified. In Nielsen’s case, she’s been on the receiving end of all of those and more.
Let’s start with the most egregious offense, coming from perhaps the least surprising source: Ann Coulter. “I don't like conspiracy theories on attractive women using sex for promotions, but other than being very pretty, Trump's DHS nominee Kirstjen Nielsen is Chuck Schumer.” Coulter has made torpedoing Nielsen’s nomination a priority over immigration, due in part to measured answers given by Nielsen over issues such as the border wall and Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, affecting those known as the “Dreamers.” If Coulter wants a wall “from sea to shining sea” and wants the Dreamers deported, she has a right to that position. Pushing the idea that a woman with whom she disagrees must be trading sex for power? Despicable, though hardly a shock from someone like Coulter.
At least Coulter puts her name on her appalling statements. Politico saw fit to run with a story headlined “Kelly’s deputy annoys Trump aides with rigid style,” citing a handful of anonymous gripes. “Nielsen ... routinely cancels meetings with senior officials if someone shows up late,” Politico reports. Among her other violations? Clamping down on “staffers who linger too long in the chief of staff’s office.” What a monster, right? For the crime of being a competent woman who doesn’t accept unprofessional behavior, “some Trump loyalists even refer to Nielsen behind her back as ‘Nurse Ratched,’” which of course also comes with the implication that the Trump White House is, itself, an asylum.
It is hard to fathom a gossipy piece being written about a man in a position of authority who — gasp! — actually expects people to show up to things on time. It is also hard to imagine a man’s looks being used to suggest he is the recipient of a job he does not deserve. But there are also the more subtle expressions of sexism, such as assuming a woman just can’t be up to a tough job and setting unique standards she is expected to meet.
Take this question from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who asked Nielsen in her hearing, “Why should we believe, as smart as you are, having never led an organization of more than 100 people, that you are ready to take on a responsibility this large now?” Ah yes, despite your extensive experience at the department you hope to lead, why we should believe you’re ready for the big-boy job? For past DHS secretary nominees, serving as a “major player,” providing “key advice” and being a top lawyer at other departments has been more than enough to satisfy Sen. Carper, but suddenly we have a “100 person” test on our hands. In the end, Sen. Carper voted against the nomination of Nielsen. Shame on him for it.
When talented, qualified women take on greater responsibility, the simple fact of being talented and qualified is hardly enough to shield them from the gender-specific animosity that will come their way. One hopes that in early December, Nielsen will be confirmed by the Senate, increasing the number of women in this administration and overcoming the sexist garbage that has been thrown at her along the way.