WASHINGTON The two photos serve as powerful visual bookends for any discussion of gender and the Obama White House.
The first was worth its thousand words, and sparked even more: the president sitting in the Oval Office with 10 men arrayed in front of him, and Valerie Jarrett’s leg barely visible.
The second, six months later, was equally striking, if less noticed: the president, Susan Rice, his new national security adviser, and Samantha Power, his nominee for United Nations ambassador, striding down the colonnade outside the Oval Office.
Rice, in the middle and a head shorter than the other two, has her arms flung about their waists. Departing national security adviser Tom Donilon is off to the side, excluded from the new, estrogen-heavy inner circle.
Think buddy picture: Thelma and Louise and Barack. Was this image spontaneous, Rice exuberantly in the moment with two close pals? Or was it scripted, a choreographed counterpoint to the Oval Office image? (Is asking that cynical question a sign of having been in Washington too long?)
In some sense, the answer is irrelevant. The symbolism is the message. The girls are back in town.
When it comes to gender, the Obama White House is in a transition state, changing but not yet fully transformed.
Both photos captured a truth about the Obama White House.
It has exuded a decided boys’ club air; Jarrett’s leg notwithstanding. Yet the presence of a few well-placed women such as Jarrett and Rice, and the addition of a few more – Kathy Ruemmler as White House counsel, Lisa Monaco as counterterrorism adviser, Sylvia Mathews Burwell at the Office of Management and Budget – upends the macho dynamic.
And the changes at the White House mirror the changes in society as a whole, choppy and unfinished but also inexorable.
Listen to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant explaining America’s mediocre performance on education. “Can I tell the truth?” he asked The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan. “Both parents started working. And the mom is in the workplace.”
Bryant knew enough to start backpedaling, fast. “It’s not a bad thing,” he added. “I’m going to get in trouble, I can see the emails tomorrow. … It’s a great American story now that women are certainly in the workplace.”
Is the gender glass half-full or half-empty? The governor clearly believes working mothers launched the decline of the American educational system. But he also understood that he was entering treacherous territory in expressing this view. Perhaps fear of backlash is the first step toward enlightenment.
Not for Paul Tudor Jones. “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men – period, end of story,” the billionaire hedge fund manager told an audience at the University of Virginia business school. “And the reason why is not because they are not capable. They are very capable.”
But, Jones insisted, the intense focus required of a top-tier trader is fundamentally inconsistent with motherhood, citing the experience of two “girls” who began with him at E.F. Hutton in the late 1970s.
“Within four years … they both got married and … they both had children,” Jones said in a video obtained by The Washington Post. “And as soon as that baby’s lips touch that girl’s bosom, forget it. Every single investment idea, every desire to understand what’s going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed by the most beautiful experience. … And I’ve just seen it happen over and over.”
Even Jones, in a statement, felt the need to clarify that his remarks applied only “with regard to global macro traders, who are on call 24/7.”
Right – like female neurosurgeons, or female national security advisers for that matter.
If Jones makes you want to tear your hair out, read the letter that former Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman received when she applied to Harvard’s urban planning school in 1961.
How, a professor queried, would she manage to “combine a professional life in city planning with your responsibilities to your husband and a possible future family?”
No one would write that letter today. The picture isn’t perfect, in the White House or the country. Still, it is much improved.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for the Washington Post
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