“He will adapt and he will learn,” Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said Thursday, excusing Donald Trump’s latest nasty tweet as the forgivable misstep of a newbie.
Her remarks brought outrage. Not as high decibel as Trump’s original comment that TV host Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” but a particular kind of outrage that raises its own set of questions about whether women in politics have an added responsibility toward other women.
There were many public appeals to Chao, one of only two women in Trump’s Cabinet, and also to other women in his administration “All the women collecting paychecks from the U.S. taxpayers — Dina Powell, Kellyanne Conway, Elaine Chao, Betsy DeVos — you should all go on the record and condemn your boss’ comments,” Nicolle Wallace, a former communications director for George W. Bush and now a host on MSNBC, said on her show. “And you should work behind the scenes to educate him just how offensive they are.”
Joe Scarborough, Brzezinski’s co-host and fiancée, agreed during a segment this morning to respond to Trump’s tweets: “Someone like Elaine Chao needs to speak out.”
Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary in the Bill Clinton administration and author of “Why Women Should Rule the World,” agrees with this expectation that women have a particular obligation to call out sexism, even – especially – in their boss. “I think there’s a certain responsibility on behalf of women,” she told Yahoo News. “Any woman who has been on the receiving end of sexism — and that is pretty much every woman in some context — owes it to other women to speak out.”
There is, she recognizes, an inherent complexity to this expectation — in that it is arguably its own form of sexism. Earlier this month House Speaker Paul Ryan said much the same thing about Trump as Chao did yesterday — “He’s just new to this,” Ryan said, excusing Trump’s actions before the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Yes, Ryan was criticized by many for that statement, but not with the added layer that he was betraying his gender by standing by the president.
It is a conundrum felt by all women in government, says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for the Study of Women and American Politics at Rutgers University. Women new to office often tell researchers there that they are reluctant to be defined by “women’s issues” such as childcare, she says, but that “no one else was going to bring it up if they didn’t.” So they did.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily completely fair,” Dittmar says. “But I think it explains some of our discomfort when women don’t call out perceived sexism. We feel, ‘This affects you directly in a way that doesn’t affect Sean Spicer, doesn’t affect Steve Bannon.”
To be sure, there was widespread bipartisan criticism of the tweets in question, from men and women. And there were also calls specifically for push back against the expectation that this was mostly the task of the women in this administration.
“Morning Joe says Elaine Chao needs to speak up against mistreatment of women by POTUS,” tweeted Lauren Katzenberg, co-founder of a newsletter for military families. “Why not call on men in White House to do the same?”
Agreed Myers during an interview: “The goal is to get to a place where everyone is equally outraged. But we are not there yet.”