Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Wives & The Power

The Daily Beast ran a story by Joe Matthews and its first two paragraphs are this:

"The conventional wisdom has hardened quickly: Californians, in rejecting Silicon Valley CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, supposedly declared in last week's elections that they don't want corporate executives running their government.

Nonsense. California voters may have turned down the applications of Whitman and Fiorina for the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat, respectively. But in the very same election, they voted to put a female corporate executive from the Bay Area in charge of their state's government.

The name of Anne Gust Brown, a former top lawyer and executive for The Gap, wasn't on the ballot, but it might as well as have been. She served as de facto campaign manager for the campaign of her husband of five years, the once and now future Gov. Jerry Brown."

No, Mr. Matthews. If Ms. Gust Brown's name wasn't on the balloot, then, in fact, voters in California didn't elect her, they elected her husband. She might have done an awful lot to help her husband get elected, but she didn't run herself.

Does she have access to power? Yes. Can she influence how the power of the governor's office is used in California? Of course. Is the power of that office actually in her hands? No, and if she herself had run for governor, the narrative of the California race would have been a whole lot different.

Matthews tells us that Jerry Brown might not appoint a chief of staff because he has his wife there filling that role on an unpaid basis. If that's the case, then give her the title and pay her a dollar, because why not? Then she has an actual, acknowledged public role. Too messy? It's cleaner than this.

This whole thing reminds of the recent Forbes list of the "100 Most Powerful Women in the World." Michelle Obama was at the top of that list -- the number one, ONE - most powerful woman in the world. Sure they put her there to be provocative. And I was provoked. Because while Michelle Obama is, in my opinion, totally awesome, she's in the position she's in and has the particular power she has through her marriage. If she weren't married to the president, she'd still be powerful and do important things, I'm sure, but if you didn't live in Chicago, you might not know about her.

I've been reading the excellent Big Girls Don't Cry right now by Rebecca Traister. It's about women and the 2008 election. At the beginning, Traister quotes Living History, Hillary Clinton's memoir, in which Clinton describes the power of the first lady as "derivative." That's the point.

Women who are powerful in their own right and are married to men who hold powerful positions do not hold the same power as their spouses. It does a disservice to everyone, but especially women, to conflate the power of office with the power of influence.

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