SAN DIEGO — The other day, I found myself wanting the perspective of a woman about a brouhaha in Washington involving a U.S. senator and the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency. So I called up an old college friend who now leads one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country and asked her if it is inherently sexist for a man to use the “e-word” to describe a woman or whether it depends on context.
I wasn’t trying to be glib. We all have limits to our perspective based on our background and the portal through which we watch the world pass by. As a man, I could consider the case either way. But as a woman, my friend sees it only one way.
First came the “ick factor.” This was actually the third accomplished woman with whom I’d shared this story that day. Earlier, there was the vice chancellor of a top university and later a Republican strategist. When I got to the part about the e-word, all three women gasped.
“It’s inherently sexist,” my friend at the nonprofit insisted. “Because you never say that about a man. It’s only about a woman.”
The e-word is “emotional.” If a man cries or shows his emotions, i.e. House Speaker John Boehner, we say that he is “sensitive” or “sentimental.” Those words don’t carry the same negative connotation as “emotional,” which implies that your feelings are running rampant and you’ve lost control.
So is it good or bad for elected leaders and other public figures to wear their emotions on their sleeve? It depends.
“People love to see their leaders in pain,” my friend said. “They want to see some emotion. Men can get away with it. People see them as strong and powerful, and yet still human.”
But it’s a different standard with women.
“You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s said that certain women are not emotional enough. And that’s also a problem.”
At the moment, my problem is that I feel compelled to defend a Democratic lawmaker with whom I usually disagree on policy issues, and add my voice to a chorus of opportunistic Democratic politicians who are eagerly using a dumb comment by someone who served in a Republican administration to feed the unfair narrative that the GOP is engaged in a “war on women.”
It’s never a good day when I find myself agreeing with Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader is in high dudgeon over comments that former CIA Director Michael Hayden made about Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California during a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
Along with other former and current members of the U.S. intelligence community, Hayden is worried about what is in a 6,600-page report on CIA interrogation techniques that has been prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs.
While the report has not been released, portions are leaking out. The Washington Post reported recently that the Senate document accuses the CIA of intentionally misleading the government and the American people about interrogation methods.
Hayden attacked Feinstein, and crossed the line by making it personal. He insisted during the television interview that the objectivity of the report had been compromised because Feinstein has a “deep emotional feeling” that the CIA needs to change its ways when it comes to interrogations.
Emotional. Feeling. Those are the code words associated with women, rarely used when we’re discussing men. Supposedly, men are not emotional; we’re rational. We don’t feel; we think.
Feinstein dismissed Hayden’s remark as an “old male fallback position,” but she stopped short of calling it sexist.
By going down a dirt road, and treating a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Senate so disrespectfully, Hayden embarrassed himself and the entire intelligence community. He ought to publicly apologize to Feinstein, and then conserve his voice. If the Senate report is as damning as the leaks suggest, the former CIA director may soon have some explaining to do.
Meanwhile, my friend isn’t at all surprised to hear that Feinstein is, for her part, trying to downplay the incident.
“When this happens, you can’t win either way,” she said with a chuckle. “If you defend yourself, you show how emotional you are . . . about being called emotional.”
Brilliant. Thanks for the tutorial.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.