So, for my day job I work at a reception desk at a high powered capital investment company. I sit in the lobby across from a large screen television airing CNN all day long. As I sit at my desk throughout the day, with the television on, my various co-workers pass through the lobby for this meeting or that trip to the kitchen. They glance at the headlines or the image on screen and then send an innocuous comment in my direction: “All these shootings have to stop,” “Looks cold out East,” “My kids won’t stop doing that Harlem Shake.” But the day Hillary Clinton had her hearing in front of the Senate for the Benghazi attacks, the comments I heard as people passed by, from men and women, were: “She’s getting old,” “She’s gained weight,” “She’s looks tired.”
Now despite the picture I am painting, I really like all my co-workers. Surprisingly so. When I took this job I expected to be dealing with a slew of assholes. But without exception, everyone here has treated me with great care and respect. They are thoughtful and reserved investment types, not the characters we all saw on Wall Street. Still, it disturbed me that even the thoughtful, reserved high-finance people could so non-chalently chalk up our Secretary of State to her looks.
One IT consultant stopped to peruse the candy bowl on my desk and turned to exclaim, “Oh, she looks terrrible! What happened to her?” To which I finally felt the need to respond, “Well, she’s had a pretty stressful job these past couple of years.” And he said, “Well, no one asked her to take the job.” At which point I started feeling angry. “That’s not fair. Her job isn’t to look beautiful for any of us. Her job is to improve the foreign relations of the United States of America.” (OK, maybe I didn’t say it quite so articulately, but regardless,) it didn’t faze him at all. He just chuckled as he walked away, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be married to that.”
I was mad. It was unfair. How often has Obama been criticized for his youth? This is a profession that values age and experience, but because Hillary is no longer that fresh-faced, headband-wearing first lady from the 90’s the IT consultant felt justified to discount her merit??? Really?!?! But…the truth is…I might not have provoked him, or even noticed so much, except that early that day I had the thought, “Hil’s looking pretty good.” I mean, I liked her longer hair. I thought the glasses were a nice touch. I felt good about how well she had put herself together to face her critics in the Senate that day because three weeks earlier, when she was in the hospital for that concussion, she did look old, and tired, and heavy. I mean, I guess the truth is, I have often been disappointed by HRC’s personal appearance, too. I have often let it distract me from the intelligent things she is saying or the prolific work she is doing. I celebrate women in power. But if I am honest, I, too, expected them to look pretty amid their power. But most of the powerful positions in American culture come with age and age is not how we define pretty.
I was talking to my friend about all this and she made the point that U.S. culture does not have a lot of experience watching female politicians age. We have ideas of what a senior statesman looks like, but in many ways women like Secretary Clinton and Representative Pelosi are creating the American image of a senior stateswoman. If the 98 women currently in congress are able to create sustainable careers, our image of women in political power may begin to diversify. In the same way, I was talking to one of the young female investors at my company about how the generation ahead of her has begun to establish executive roles for women in high finance. And even as I watch CNN throughout the day at least half of the broadcasts are anchored by a woman–usually a pretty, young woman, but maybe this is the generation that will establish a wide-spread precedent for the older female news person, (though, I should note that Barbara Walters has been a beacon in this landscape, with Katie Couric promising to stay on-screen for many more years to come.)
Some people don’t want things to change. But things are changing, and I wonder if most of us just aren’t aware of what we are looking at? How do we train our eyes to see what a woman is doing as quickly as we see what she is wearing? To measure her maturity as quickly as we measure her weight? To value her experience as much as we value her collagen? I’d like to think most of my co-workers haven’t had to ask themselves these question yet. I’d like to think this is a question I’ll stop forgetting to ask myself.