Have you noticed how harshly we can view women leaders, especially in politics? Is it because of sexism? Or is there something more subconscious and deeply cultural happening? We have had women leaders in the past, but the ones that many of us know best from childhood are the virtuous women leaders of the Bible.
The Virgin Mary, Ruth, Esther, Sarah, and other women leaders of the Bible are virtuous women who are honest, ethical, modest, nurturing, caring, and chaste. They are a role model in the community, protecting, nurturing, and educating children, ensuring that their family is exhibiting proper behavior, and politely communicating their displeasure.
The “virtuous woman” has been the cornerstone of the Western Christian and Jewish faith for thousands of years. It peaked during the Victorian Era, which encouraged prostitution so men could do “what they do” and the virtuous woman could maintain her chastity (and receive orgasms at the doctor’s office). Freud conceived of the “Madonna-Whore Complex” to describe the phenomenon. We have moved forward in history, but the virtuous woman is a legacy role that many women unconsciously assume today, and it doesn’t only address sexuality.
I tried to research how religion perceives a woman and her virtue. There is a sea of academic work available – it’s an extensive topic. What I was able to learn quickly is that women are generally considered leaders in the virtue department. In Kabbalah, a woman’s virtue peaks once she is married; she raises her own and her husband’s virtue levels. Women are leaders, but they lead through example.
This could be a reason why women are scrutinized for their ethics and virtue. The cultural legacy ideal for a woman leader is the virtuous woman leading by actions.
I have been observing women leaders who I may or may not agree with politically or who simply may not be ethical. In all cases, these women share something in common: society expresses outrage for their less than virtuous actions. There are cases where men may do the same action and be rewarded. It’s the old-fashioned double standard but the twist is that society requires that men need little-to-no virtue compared to women.
Here are three examples of this in action in recent politics. I’m sure there are more examples as well.
Should Ivanka be responsible to “manage” Donald Trump’s virtue?
Is it fair to hold a woman responsible for the behaviors of her family? Some believe that a virtuous woman leads her family through example and holds them to a high standard, managing their actions. But this expectation isn’t realistic, or fair. How can anyone control other free-minded adults?
Ivanka Trump is accused of being complicit in her father’s administration by people who hope she can be a tempering influence. Despite showing some differing views during the campaign, she has been noticeably silent after the election when it comes to commenting on her father’s policies and viewpoints regarding immigration, refugees, women, LGBTQ rights, and other social justice issues. Many believe that she should use her influence to get him to change his policy directions, despite the fact that her silence means that we’re not really sure what she believes.
But, by accusing her of being complicit, those who ask her to impact her father’s opinions are subconsciously asking her to play the role of the virtuous woman leader, managing her family in the name of what they consider rational. Their actions demonstrate a bias towards her role as moderating the influence of her family, based on legacy ideals of women’s leadership. But is it?
Ivanka is not the President nor his spouse. She has influence as being First Daughter, which has earned her an unpaid role. But is it realistic to expect her to manage her father and influence him to change his viewpoints to a more moderate agenda? Shouldn’t the public hold the President himself, and his official, paid cabinet accountable for their views and actions?
Many Americans were outraged that Ivanka was still managing her fashion line while being “complicit” with her father’s viewpoints and being involved in government business. Many stores dropped it due to a claim of poor performance (or public outcry, the real reason is unclear).
But Ivanka isn’t the only Trump family member profiting from the presidency. Like the rest of the family, she is also experiencing scandal in the news. Should we hold her solely accountable for her family’s challenges? Or only her own fall from virtue? Why are we making her the virtuous woman responsible to save her family?
Betsy DeVos isn’t virtuous because she sees education as a profit center
Women have historically been the caretakers, the nurturers. They raise the children and support their learning at school or teach them at home. In the US we tend to believe that women support education, especially public education.
DeVos represents the antithesis of that perception. She and her family are connected to student debt collection firms and she supports the voucher system. It’s an unusual position for a woman to take regarding education and the public responded accordingly.
The public outcry against DeVos made her the most controversial education secretary nominee in history, and the first member of the Cabinet to need the vice president’s support just to be confirmed.
–Libby Nelson, How Betsy DeVos became Trump’s most controversial nominee, Vox.com
Why this response to DeVos, especially from Republicans since she is an active supporter of the Republican Party? One explanation:
But DeVos might have struck a chord because education is a subject that many people take personally — and one that affects even white, upper-middle-class people who dislike Trump but aren’t as personally affected by his other policies.
While Americans are lukewarm on the quality of education nationally, they’re generally fond of their own public schools. “Education’s very personal for people,” Moser said. “We went to a school, or we had kids in school. … We know what it means never to have set foot into a public school and to take money from public schools.
–Libby Nelson, How Betsy DeVos became Trump’s most controversial nominee, Vox.com
I’m not sure that this tells the complete story. Given our subconscious view of women leaders being queens of virtue, I think so many were repelled by DeVos because she profits from education. Talking about money with education isn’t perceived as virtuous; it’s business-like. And given our subconscious beliefs about women, education and their role to support the education of children, I believe that there are many in society who subconsciously wonder if women leaders should be thinking this way and are repelled by DeVos.
The school voucher system is not a new idea and has been something that individuals across parties have been supporting for years. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone would come to the White House supporting vouchers. Further, there was a study completed by Education Next and surprisingly, Democrats were more supportive of a voucher system in general (32% D vs 26% R). Is the voucher system really that offensive to cause such outrage? Probably not.
Additionally, we scrutinized her experience in education. She didn’t have any direct experience teaching, with educating, or with public loans. However, there were previous Secretaries of Education who had controversial experience, yet Congress supported them without hesitation.
…when President Obama nominated former New York commissioner of education John King to be secretary of education, King was greeted courteously and approved rapidly by the Republican Senate — despite King’s troubled tenure in New York, one that featured a disastrous rollout of the Common Core. In fact, King’s warm reception followed seven years of troubling activity at the Obama Department of Education itself.
It’s worth recalling, also, how Arne Duncan, Obama’s first secretary of education, was greeted when nominated in 2008. Duncan, who had never taught, had served for seven years as superintendent of schools in Chicago — where he presided over some of the nation’s highest-paid teachers, mediocre student outcomes, and a massively underfunded pension fund.
–Frederick M. Hess, The Unconscionable Assault on Betsy DeVos, National Review
Why are candidates who had challenging backgrounds in education – disastrous rollouts of Common Core and mismanagement of the Chicago public schools – accepted and DeVos not? Why are school vouchers suddenly seen as a fringe topic when they haven’t been so far to date? The outrage for DeVos seemed far greater than the outrage for Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and Scott Pruitt combined. Why?
I believe, something else caused the outrage, something that troubles our subconscious mind regarding women leaders, and it is her connection to education for profit. We were troubled by her perceived lost virtue as a leader because she valued profits as well as education.
Hillary lost the election because she wasn’t seen as a virtuous woman leader
What do you remember most about Hillary during the election? Probably “Lock her up!” or “But her emails!” I doubt you’ll remember her for her support of women, children and families.
Hillary had a mixed reputation when she ran for President in 2008. Some adored her but for many, the Clinton presidency included too many scandals that they didn’t want to experience again.
When Hillary first ran for the 2016 election, many recollected her more recent service as Secretary of State. Her response to the Benghazi scandal, which reflected poorly on her character, had cooled somewhat by 2015. But beyond that, her decisions while acting as Secretary of State positioned her as a warmonger, as opposed to a “strong leader.” Could this perception have been remnant of the expectations of the virtuous woman leader? Possibly.
“Hillary is very much a member of the traditional American foreign-policy establishment,” says Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised her on Pakistan and Afghanistan at the State Department.
–Mark Landler, How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk, New York Times
Hillary held the same traditional foreign-policy perspective as US male leaders who are portrayed as tough, strong, and powerful. But for Hillary in the eyes of many voters, this made her a cold-hearted hawk, even though she negotiated a cease fire between Israel and Hamas.
It was unclear during the email scandal if it was her ethics or her ignorance that allowed the clintonemail.com account to exist in the first place. Either way, a lack of ethics and ignorance aren’t virtuous qualities. A politician who isn’t using government IT systems for their communications, email, Twitter, and other electronic communication opens a potential security breech and is withholding content “owned” by the American people (what would happen if an FOIA act request were filed?). Other government officials have been severely reprimanded for less. A Naval reservist who mishandled confidential information by transferring a file to a flash drive got 2 years probation and a fine. Surely, using your own email system is worse. There were many ethical and technical (security, backup, storage) implications for Hillary. It damaged her credibility.
As the email scandal continued and DNC emails were leaked to Wikileaks, additional suspicious coincidences with the Clinton Foundation were confirmed (issues that go well beyond what happened with how they handled Haiti), as well as damaging information about the DNC.
Her hawkish foreign policy perspective, the emails, and the scandals (Clinton Foundation and DNC) all contributed to her loss of the most recent Presidential election to Donald Trump.
Although there was significant outrage over her emails and the DNC email leak, there was little media attention when select Trump staff members continued to use the RNC email system for federal communications rather than federal email accounts. A similar story emerged about a number of other Republican Congress people using gmail accounts for official government business. Few in the media or the public seemed to care. (Just for the record, the Bush administration lost 22 million emails for federal communications in the RNC system as well. No investigation was conducted. It quietly went away in the media.)
Further, Trump continues to Tweet messages that could impact the world’s economy and international policy because he has direct access to Twitter through a non-secured (and possibly personal) account. No investigation. No reprimand.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has attacked Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and threatened North Korea. His approval rating improved after these actions. Americans seem to like the “strong” traditional foreign-policy perspective that they found distasteful in Hillary.
It’s as if it is ok for Trump to do the same as Hillary, but somehow, Hillary must be punished for her fall.
We like to think that we don’t hold women and men to different standards, but looking at these three examples, we do. We scrutinize women who don’t hold that stereotypical motherly, nurturing, virtuous ideal that we learned from our religious traditions and subconsciously hold close to our hearts. Be visible but not too visible. Be vocal but not too vocal. Correct and cover for the family. Be nurturing. Set the “right” example.
What do we do about the Virtuous Woman problem?
I think looking at the situations above in light of, “well if men do it and it’s ok, it’s ok for women too,” is just flawed thinking. We need to hold men accountable to the same standard we do women – a higher standard. We need to transition from the idea of the “virtuous woman” and support the idea of the “virtuous individual.” A woman cannot save the world with her virtue. We all save the world when we hold everyone — and ourselves — to a higher standard, a virtuous standard. Once we do that, then we will see change in our society. By accepting corruption, dishonesty, fraud and exclusion by men, we are indirectly and subconsciously approving this behavior. By not accepting it from women and expecting them to be virtuous, we are hypocrites.
Maybe it is time to punish the men and women who aren’t virtuous. Maybe it is time to shatter the age-old myth of the “virtuous woman leader,” hold leaders to a higher standard, and usher in the age of the “virtuous leader.”