Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nominations By Gender

Caught by an open microphone at the National Governors Association conference in Philadelphia, host Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania commented in a private conversation of Barack Obama's designee for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano:

Janet's perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.

This aroused the ire of CNN anchorwoman Campbell Brown, who delivered a commentary criticizing Rendell's remarks. Credit Brown with sticking to the issues and not succumbing to personal attack. Credit Rendell with believing that a man or a woman holding a Cabinet position in the United States government should be encouraged to work long hours for the public good. Meanwhile, Ms. Brown raised three concerns:

1. If a man had been Obama's choice for the job, would having a family or not having a family ever even have been an issue? Would it have ever prompted a comment? Probably not. We all know the assumption tends to be that with a man, there is almost always a wife in the wings managing those family concerns.

2. As a woman, hearing this, it is hard not to wonder if we are counted out for certain jobs, certain opportunities, because we do have a family or because we are in our child-bearing years. Are we? It is a fair question.

3. If you are a childless, single woman with suspicions that you get stuck working holidays, weekends and the more burdensome shifts more often than your colleagues with families, are those suspicions well-founded? Probably so. Is there an assumption that if you're family-free then you have no life? By some, yes.

Brown's most valid point is the first, in which she finds unfair the double standard that prompts concern when a woman entering a high-profile job has children but none for a man in a similar position. The assumption, however, "that with a man, there is almost always a wife in the wings managing those family concerns," while arguably inconvenient, unfair, or socially dysfunctional, is nevertheless well founded. And if Brown believes that the wife should not "be in the wings managing those family concerns," she ought to say so. She would deserve applause for the courage and wisdom to suggest that the American practice of the wife pursuing an ambitious career while assiduously committed to, and attending to the affairs of, the family is harmful to the family unit (if not a woman's health).

Her second and third arguments are slightly confusing and possibly contradictory. Brown cannot, or should not be allowed to, have it both ways: in the world of oppression she posits, the married woman gets the shaft- but the single woman is encouraged to sacrifice for the organization, and presumably pave the way for her advancement. Implying that both women face largely impenetrable obstacles to professional success is, generously speaking, disingenuous.

Campbell Brown does, however, avoid referring to Governor Rendell, or his remarks, as "sexist." And she avoids suggesting that women should be given priority in assignment to Cabinet positions simply on the basis of the inherited characteristic of gender. Not so, though, the MSNBC anchorwoman Andrea Mitchell. On Wednesday afternoon, in a discussion with fellow anchorwoman Nora O'Donnell, Mrs. Alan Greenspan (far be it for me to sink to the level of personal attack) remarked of the incoming Obama administration, with a straight face, "they are creating a mosaic but they are not self-consciously creating that mosaic."

What an exemplary example of the right wing's charge that the mainstream media is having a love affair with former Senator Obama! Not only is a mosaic being created but, better yet, the President-elect is doing it with self-effacement and admirable modesty.

Mitchell's enthusiasm for the creation of a mosaic betrays a lack of interest in whether Barack Obama's appointments are wise, the individuals best able to serve the national interest in the positions for which they are being nominated. Campbell Brown's concerns, however inartfully expressed (as are mine here, apparently) and inexact, reflect a belief that, ultimately, individuals should not be precluded from service because of gender or, presumably, race.


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