In the clash over Robert H. Bork’s nomination, Joe Biden’s moderate instincts defined a winning strategy.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on the brink of victory, but he was unsatisfied.
Mr. Biden, the 44-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was poised to watch his colleagues reject President Ronald Reagan’s formidable nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert H. Bork. The vote was unlikely to be close. Yet Mr. Biden was hovering in the Senate chamber, plying Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican of modestly conservative politics and regal bearing, with arguments about Bork’s record.
Rejecting a Supreme Court nominee was an extraordinary act of defiance, and Mr. Biden did not want a narrow vote that could look like an act of raw partisan politics.
“We already had Bork beat,” said Mark Gitenstein, who was then chief counsel to Mr. Biden’s committee. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”
Mr. Biden’s entreaties prevailed: Mr. Warner became one of 58 senators to vote against Bork, and one of six Republicans.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons. The vote ensured that the court’s swing seat would not go to a man with a long history of criticizing rulings on the rights of African-Americans and women. It also enraged a generation of conservatives and transformed the judge’s name into an ominous verb: Fearful of getting “Borked,” no nominee would ever again speak so freely about his views as Bork did.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Robert H. Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons.
It was also a personal turning point for Mr. Biden. In the Bork debate, Mr. Biden’s political ethos found its most vivid and successful expression.
A review of Mr. Biden’s conduct in the debate — including interviews with 16 people directly involved in the nomination fight, and a review of the hearings and Mr. Biden’s speeches — yielded a portrait of Mr. Biden as an ambitious young senator determined to achieve a vital liberal goal by decidedly unradical means.
The strategy Chairman Biden deployed then is the same one he is now proposing to bring to the White House as President Biden.
In the 1980s, as today, he saw bipartisan compromise not as a version of surrender, but as a vital tool for achieving Democratic goals.
Then, as now, Mr. Biden saw the culture and traditions of the Senate not as crippling obstacles, but as instruments that could be bent to his advantage.
And in both defining moments — his leadership of the Bork hearings and his third presidential campaign — Mr. Biden made persuading moderates, rather than exciting liberals, his guiding objective.
Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, has strained to defend this approach in the 2020 presidential primary, offering only a halting rationale for a political worldview that other Democrats see as out of date. His rivals have branded him as a timid and even reactionary figure — a creature of the Senate cloakroom who partnered with former segregationists to pass draconian anti-crime legislation and joined with the business lobby to tighten bankruptcy laws.
And Mr. Biden’s opponents point not to the Bork hearings but a different confirmation battle as proof that his instincts are flawed. Four years after Bork was defeated, Mr. Biden would again take an accommodating approach to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Mr. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured.
But he has never regretted the conciliatory style that led him to triumph against Bork. In that process, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — men like Mr. Warner.
Now 92, Mr. Warner said in an interview that his memories of the Bork hearings had grown foggy over the years. But two impressions were indelible, he said. The first concerned Reagan’s nominee: “I never encountered a man with a shorter temper,” Mr. Warner said.
The second concerned the caliber of the Senate’s deliberations.
“It was a real, solid, good debate, led by Biden,” Mr. Warner said. “He showed extraordinary leadership.”
The outcome was not foreordained, for either Bork or Mr. Biden. The debate unfolded at a moment of humiliation for Mr. Biden, whose first campaign for president unraveled as the Bork hearings approached their climax. And the judge was no timid adversary, as the journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in a book on the nomination.
“Robert Bork,” Mr. Bronner wrote, “was a man of war.”
Mr. Biden was seated behind a desk in a spacious living room adjoining his study at his Wilmington, Del., home. A few aides sat or stood around the room, where pizza was in generous supply. Squared off against Mr. Biden was Robert H. Bork — or rather, a convincing simulacrum played by the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.
Mr. Tribe and Mr. Biden would spar for hours in a series of sessions that August, joined occasionally by other legal experts who would help Mr. Biden hone his queries on subjects from antitrust regulation to sexual privacy.
“Biden’s questions were really smart, and they also needed some sharpening,” Mr. Tribe said in an interview, citing Mr. Biden’s tendency to “ask one thing and mean something slightly different.”
Mr. Biden came to those training sessions by a jagged path, shaped by pressure from progressive activists and the delicate politics of the Judiciary Committee. He was arming himself to oppose Bork, but not with the methods of the left.
On the day Bork was nominated, liberals viewed Mr. Biden with suspicion. Taking over one of the Senate’s great committees at a boyish — for the Senate — age of 44, Mr. Biden had already split with progressives on the issue of busing as a means of desegregating schools. Until Bork, the authors Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel would write, Mr. Biden “had been reluctant to challenge Reagan’s transformation of the federal judiciary.”
The previous November, the soon-to-be chairman had given liberals new reason for concern, suggesting to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he might one day vote to put Bork on the Supreme Court, should he be Reagan’s next nominee.
“I’m not Teddy Kennedy,” he told the newspaper.
When Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a flexible conservative, resigned from the court in late June, Mr. Biden found himself in the shadow of Kennedy, the party’s leading liberal, and laboring to reconcile his own moderate instincts with a mood of alarm on the left. When the White House announced Bork’s nomination on the first day of July, Kennedy delivered a thunderous warning from the Senate floor: In “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy said,
- “women would be forced into back-alley abortions,
- blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”
The scathing address was a call to arms for the left, and it helped animate a coalition of progressives — led by feminists, civil rights activists and labor unions — that applied pressure to undecided senators throughout the summer.
“His record was so extensive, and it touched almost every issue of importance to American life,” said Nan Aron, a leading anti-Bork activist. “It wasn’t simply a single issue that caused people to be alarmed.”
Another purpose of Kennedy’s speech, his allies have said, was to ensure Mr. Biden would not cave.
“One of the reasons for ‘Robert Bork’s America’ was to freeze Biden,” Jeffrey Blattner, a Kennedy aide, would say decades later, in an oral history for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He’s running for president. We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”
Mr. Biden quickly aligned himself with Kennedy, and, at his liberal colleague’s urging, secured an agreement from Senator Strom Thurmond — the 84-year-old former segregationist who was the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican — to delay Bork’s hearings until September.
“Biden was under a lot of pressure, particularly from the liberal senators,” said former Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who said he began the confirmation process favorably disposed toward Bork. “At first, I was leaning strongly to vote for him.”
Even as he pledged to oppose Bork, Mr. Biden made clear to progressive leaders in a private meeting that he saw his role as sharply distinct from theirs. He would play an inside game aimed at swaying Senate moderates, starting with the four undecided members of his committee:
- Mr. DeConcini and two other Democrats,
- Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and
- Howell Heflin of Alabama, and a Republican,
- Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Ralph Neas, a civil rights activist who joined the liberals’ initial meeting with Mr. Biden, said the chairman conveyed “that he would take the lead and we would try to put together a bipartisan coalition.”
“Biden’s street cred with a lot of the centrists was quite high,” Mr. Neas said.
Mr. Biden was blunter with his aides: He would not adopt Kennedy’s rhetoric or make abortion his central cause. According to a book Mr. Gitenstein published in 1992 about the confirmation fight, Mr. Biden feared Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade but told aides he did not see the case as “great constitutional law.” More disturbing to him — and, he believed, more likely to sway undecided voters — was a Connecticut case on contraception that revealed Bork’s doubts about a broader right to privacy.
“It really concerns me more than abortion,” Mr. Biden is quoted as saying in the book.
In their sessions, Mr. Tribe said, the future vice president wrestled not just with Bork’s record but also with the idea of disqualifying nominees based on individual issues.
“I remember pushing back on Biden, saying, ‘If you think Roe v. Wade really ought to be the law of the land, shouldn’t that count?’” Mr. Tribe recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, it should count a lot, but I still don’t want to have a flat litmus test.’”
Mr. Tribe remembered thinking: “This guy’s a little bit more cautious than I am. But that’s fine, he’s playing a different role.”
Mr. Biden’s self-assigned role was readily apparent as the Bork hearings began in mid-September. Beaming down at the judge from a crowded dais, Mr. Biden praised him as man of towering achievement and “provocative” views. Flanked by Kennedy at one elbow and Thurmond at the other, Mr. Biden said the hearings should not be “clouded by strident rhetoric from the far left or the far right.”
“Anytime you feel you want to expand on an answer, you are not bound by time,” Mr. Biden encouraged Bork, adding in a tone of levity, “Go ahead and bog us down.”
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.CreditJose
The judge, bearded and broad shouldered, did not recognize the trap.
Few men could have been more prepared to face a constitutional interrogation. A former Yale Law School professor who served as the country’s solicitor general and, amid the maelstrom of Watergate, as acting attorney general, Bork brought to the hearings a reputation for quick eloquence and utter mastery of the law.
Mr. Biden had no such reputation, and the columnist George F. Will spoke for much of Washington when he predicted Bork would be “more than a match for Biden.”
The chairman gave his colleagues wide latitude to question Bork, whose testimony consumed five days. It culminated in an unusual Saturday hearing that was dominated by an hourslong debate between Bork and Specter, a former district attorney who frequently rode the Amtrak rails with Mr. Biden, about the meaning of constitutional intent. Mr. Biden had offered Specter half an hour for his questions; when Specter balked at the time limit, Mr. Biden relented and opened the way for a crucial exchange.
“His debate with my father on constitutional law did reveal him to be not sufficiently respectful of precedent, which pushed my father against him, and pushed other swing senators against him,” said Shanin Specter, the senator’s son and a Philadelphia lawyer. “It would not have happened if Biden, as chair, hadn’t permitted the hearings to go exactly as long as they needed to go.”
Mr. Biden sought, too, to quash attacks on Bork that he saw as risking political backlash. He shot down a plan to ambush Bork with a recording of a speech he gave in 1985, insisting on sharing it with the judge before airing it in the committee. And Mr. Biden and his aides refused a request from a number of prominent activists, including Ralph Nader, to testify in opposition to Bork. The left was applying powerful pressure from outside the Senate, but Mr. Biden preferred that its leaders stay there — on the outside.
Ms. Aron, who would later clash with Mr. Biden over the nomination of Justice Thomas in 1991, said the combination of popular pressure on the Senate and Mr. Biden’s high-minded hearings doomed the nominee.
“What defeated Robert Bork was public pressure,” Ms. Aron said. “But what allowed the public to engage was a review of Bork’s record.”
And Bork did himself few favors: While he assured senators, in his rumbling voice, that he would not overturn rulings capriciously, he struggled to explain away past comments decrying “dozens” of shoddy Supreme Court decisions or deriding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or ridiculing the concept of a constitutional right to privacy. He startled even some allies by describing as “troublesome” the reasoning behind a 1954 case desegregating public schools in the nation’s capital.
In his questions, Mr. Biden posed as a mere mortal grappling with the ideas of a giant.
“Clearly, I do not want to get into a debate with a professor,” Mr. Biden stressed, prodding Mr. Bork about the Griswold v. Connecticut case that ended a state prohibition on birth control: “As I hear you, you do not believe there is a general right of privacy that is in the Constitution.”
“Not one derived in that fashion,” Bork said of the popular decision. “There may be other arguments, and I do not want to pass upon those.”
Watching Bork’s testimony, his political backers knew he was losing. He was articulate, but he was also argumentative. His knowledge of the law was powerful, his political antennae were not.
“I can’t blame Biden,” reflected Tom Korologos, the Republican lobbyist tasked with ushering Bork onto the court. “I blame Bork and Specter, and the other senators, for going on and on.”
Every swing vote on Mr. Biden’s committee swung against Bork, sending him to the floor with a negative recommendation by a vote of 9 to 5. The White House offered Bork the chance to withdraw; he chose martyrdom instead.
His supporters gave him that much, accusing Bork’s opponents of bowing to activists like Mr. Neas and Ms. Aron. “The man’s been trashed in our house,” Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri, lamented on the Senate floor. “Some of us helped generate the trashing. Others of us yielded to it.”
Mr. Biden called Mr. Danforth’s complaint an insult to the Senate.
“I have a higher opinion of the ability of my colleagues to do what’s right than, apparently, the senator from Missouri does,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s approach to the Bork nomination was a legislative and political success, one he experienced as personal redemption after his presidential candidacy crumbled. It brought to maturity the strategic instincts that defined him in subsequent battles — including his contested stewardship of the Thomas hearings — and that shape his candidacy today.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s campaign, and perhaps a future presidency, may hinge on whether that version of leadership, defined by collegiality and adherence to procedure, can inspire Democrats and coax cooperation from Republicans. In the presidential race, there is no Ted Kennedy to sound a trumpet for the left while Mr. Biden plays a methodical inside game. And there are no Republicans to be found in the Senate like Specter, who eventually, at Mr. Biden’s urging, quit the G.O.P. to become a Democrat before his death in 2012.
Still, Mr. Gitenstein said he had encouraged the former vice president to draw public attention to his role in the 1987 court fight. The defeat of Robert Bork averted a solidly conservative majority, handing the court’s decisive seat to the more pliant Anthony M. Kennedy, who became a decisive figure in a generation’s worth of eclectic rulings on subjects from campaign finance and union rights to abortion and the legal definition of marriage.
“I don’t think he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I’ve talked to him about it. He’s got so much on his platter.”
Mr. DeConcini, who at 82 is a supporter of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said he hoped a strategy of moderation could prevail again.
But he admitted to having doubts.
“I’d like to think so, I really would,” Mr. DeConcini said. “I’m just not sure.”
Kirsten Gillibrand did a town hall on Fox News. There were few moments where things got a little testy.
Chris Wallace cut her off when she criticized FoxNews for 6.5 hours of coverage of coverage of “infanticide”.00:00>> Kirsten Gillibrand had her town hall on FOX News.And look, there’s been a debate about whether or not it makes sense to do a town hall onFOX News.Elizabeth Warren believes that it legitimizes FOX and it helps them sell ads and I thinkthat’s a fair point to make.Whereas others think it’s important to go on this platform and try to convince Republicanvoters to support them.>> Which is not gonna happen, but anyway.So during this town hall Chris Wallace is hosting, and there were a few moments wherethings got a little fiery.Let’s show you the first example.>> I can tell you, before President Trump gave his State of the Union, Fox News talkedabout infanticide.Infanticide doesn’t exist.>> Senator, Senator I just want to say we brought you here>> I know, I just- >> For an hour, we have given you->> I respect that.>> We are treating you very fairly.I understand that maybe to make your credentials with the Democrats who are not appearing onFox news, you’re gonna attack us.I’m not sure it’s frankly very polite when- >> Okay, I’ll do it in a polite way.>> We’ve invited you to be here.>> I’ll do it in a polite way, but it’s a chore for me.>> Well, I just think- >> It’s to a point->> I just think why don’t we- >> I’m answering your question.>> Instead of talking about Fox News why don’t you answer question?>> The debate about whether or not women should have reproductive freedom has turned intoa red herring debate.And what happens on Fox News is relevant, because they talked about infanticide for6.5 hours, 6.5 hours.>> Good for her.>> So, she was told to be polite.I mean that wasn’t his exact wording, but he called her impolite and then she said,okay, I’ll say it in a polite way.No, don’t say it in a polite way.No.Listen to me, Fox.You want Democratic candidates to go on your town halls and help you guys with advertisers?Fine, but they get to say what they want to say.You don’t like it, Chris Wallace?I mean do you remember, I don’t know if you guys remember, Candy Crowley.Her entire career on CNN was destroyed because she fact checked, by the way, correctly fact-checkedcandidates during a debate, right?This was years ago.I don’t even remember which candidates were involved, I even remember exactly what happened.But I do remember that she very, in my opinion, like meekly fact-checked.And then that was it, she’s gone.She is not on CNN obviously.What is Chris Wallace doing?Don’t tell her to polite!Don’t even imply that she needs to be polite.She’s there, during a town hall, and this.Anyway, it makes me so irritated because it is not your place to interrupt her and tellher what she can and can’t say as a candidate agreeing to do a town hall on your network.>> Yep, nope.Kinda reminds me of this past week when the gentleman ran onstage while Harris was theretrying to speak.It’s that continued narrative we see of men stepping up and stepping in, in a way to tryto discredit a woman or try to push her in a direction as opposed to letting her haveher own autonomy and use her own voice.And also the whole Be Polite narrative, isn’t that same framework of just smile more?>> Totally, totally.>> Yeah.>> It’s like do you want her to spell propaganda or to share facts?Because the focus shouldn’t have been on whether she was polite or not, but whether she wasspouting truth, and it sounds like it, that’s exactly what she was doing.And just because Wallace was not content with that doesn’t mean he should have opened hisdamn mouth.>> The point of this town hall is not to hear about how, what this candidate is saying ishurting Chris Wallace’s feelings or Conservative’s feelings.The point of the town hall is for the candidate to put their policies out there and show voterswho they are.So if conservatives voters don’t like who she is or what she has to say, they’re notgonna vote for her, we’re done with it, right?>> Right.>> But you don’t get to decide what she can say and what she can’t say.She’s agreed to do this town hall, you guys have been crying like little children overthe Democrats who don’t wanna do their town halls on your network.And now you have the audacity to tell a woman who’s running for president to be polite?>> The only thing is that the continuous interruption- >> Yes.>> They didn’t do that to Bernie.>> No.>> Cuz Bernie didn’t have it, and people call Bernie rude, but Bernie is not rude, Bernieis just standing his ground.If she would have been in any way, if she would’ve popped off in any way, then it would’vebeen she is an angry woman.There’s no way to win in that situation.>> So true.>> You just got to ride hard.You just cannot, and good for her that she just kept going and she didn’t let him, butthe network that has Laura Ingraham is telling people to be polite, shut up and dribble?Are you kidding me?>> Exactly.>> Elizabeth Warren was wise for not going on that network, cuz there’s just nothingthat you can say to truly communicate without being shut down or trying to be shut downor intimidated in some way when you’re trying to share the facts and the truth.>> But I don’t know, Adrianne- >> Meghan McCain is thinking that it’s nota good idea because you’re alienating an entire group of people by not going on network.>> Do not politicize it.>> My God.>> So anyway, now I’m being catty.But let’s go to the second video because it went on.>> So what I mean by our future is female, is that we want more women’s voices heard.I was so inspired by the 2018 election.Those 120 women who ran in the red and purple places across the country broke through.Our first two Muslim American women, our first two Native American women.Young women, diverse women.And so we want women to have a seat at the table.>> What about men?>> They’re already there.Do you not know?>> So.>> I guess what I’m asking is are we part of the future, too?05:52>> Yes, you’re already there.So it’s not, it’s not meant to be exclusionary, it’s meant to be inclusionary.>> Okay.>> So we’re just wanna have a couple more chairs for the rest of us.>> All right, we’re not threatened.>> No, you sound pretty threatened.What about men?What’s gonna happen to us?>> All lives matter.>> At the table.You guys have made bulk of the decisions.You represent the majority of representatives and senators in Congress.What do you talk?We haven’t had a single female president.What are you talking about?>> No, no, but he wants to make sure he’s not gonna be excluded from the future.Give me a break, come on.And let her speak.And I do really hope that the women who were there in the audience and hopefully some ofthe men, it really resonated with them to the extent to which Wallace was interruptingher and really how demeaning that is.And I just really hope that that spoke volumes to them.>> What about men?I’ll tell you, look at all of the social ills of the world, and they’re usually connectedto men.How about we open the doors for women and let them bring their compassion and humanity,and probably resolve a lot of these issues?And I dare to say that I didn’t know, I thought Nikki Haley was Native American.But I know that women are not innately evil like some of these men.So I’m saying that here today, I’m going out on a limb as the comedian that I am, you saywhat about men?Look at the world, what about men?>> Yeah.>> And something that I actually really like, at Georgetown University a political scientistthere went and did a research study.And found that women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more laws, get more money fortheir districts.They work harder.Maybe because we women have been forced to work twice as hard to get opportunities, butwomen actually work harder for you as leaders.So what about men?>> And we aren’t emotionally constipated.>> Yeah, definitely.And look, I just think it’s interesting how the whole issue of gender equality, it’s notabout giving one gender a leg up over the other.The way that it’s being treated as a zero-sum game, it is being treated as a threat by somemen, certainly not all, not even close to all.>> That’s right.>> And the point I wanna make is look, we’re living in the type of economy right now whereif you’re a man who is threatened by the equality and you don’t want women to have the someopportunities as you?I mean, if you’re straight and you plan on having a female partner, you need a dual incomehousehold to survive.You want those opportunities for both of you, right?>> What do they say, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?>> Yeah.>> So that’s what you were saying there with little Chris and his little feet were danglingon the tear.>> Yeah.
Powerful women know how to flip feminine stereotypes to their advantage.
There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.
What you haven’t heard about much is the way successful women overcome this form of gender bias. I have interviewed about 200 women over the years in my research on gender and the workplace, and they all employ a similar set of strategies for escaping the likability trap. One former chief executive described hers this way: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraced a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom — but flipped it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward. I call it gender judo.
Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.
This version of masculinity maps perfectly onto what we expect from leaders, in business and politics. Women in leadership need to display these “masculine” qualities, but when they do they risk being seen as bad women, and also as bad people. So savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).
Other research finds that women make a similar finesse while negotiating. Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation. (“It wasn’t clear to me whether this salary offer represents the top of the pay range.”) When Sheryl Sandberg negotiated for what no doubt was an outlandishly high compensation package at Facebook, she told Mark Zuckerberg: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” She turned a salary negotiation (competitive and ambitious) into a touching testimony of team loyalty.
Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?
When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.
For women who want to master this strategy, the first step is to behave as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens. If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.If it is, try doing something masculine in a feminine way. Think of femininity as a tool kit, and choose something that feels authentic to you. But don’t choose deference. One study found that women who used a submissive conversational style, apologizing and hedging, just undercut themselves.
The most common anti-backlash strategy I found in the women I interviewed was to mix authoritativeness and warmth. “I got feedback I was intimidating, so I would make sure that I got to know people, and before a meeting I would share something personal to make myself more approachable,” one woman, who is now a chief executive, told me.
Some women use metaphors to recode behavior that is coded as masculine. A woman responsible for winning new clients at a major consulting firm, where rainmakers were called “hunters,” told me she rejected that label. “I always said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a gardener. I grow things,’” she told me. Just another dame who loves to nurture.
Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display. “For me, it’s pink lipstick,” one woman told me. She is the lone female member of the board of a public company.
In the most sophisticated form of this strategy, powerful women create an entirely new narrative, softening their hard-driving personas by highlighting that they are also communal, selfless mothers. A brilliant recent example is M.J. Hegar’s 2018 congressional campaign video. In it, a battered door — all that’s left of the helicopter she was shot down in while on an Air Force rescue mission — is tucked behind her dining table, where she sits contentedly with her family.
This is all a lot of hard work, and it’s work that men don’t have to do. Men, to be successful, just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.
What’s the solution? Organizations have to be vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to do this in the first place. The workplace is often structured in ways that reward behavior that’s considered socially appropriate in white men but socially inappropriate in women and people of color. This provides an invisible escalator for white men.
The goal is not to empower women to be as emotionally tone deaf and grabby as men are sometimes encouraged to be. Instead, we should work to make sure that both men and women are rewarded for displaying empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self-interest. These qualities have long been undervalued in work and in political life because they have been coded as feminine, and the world needs much more of them.
It’s charitable to first assume our fellow humans are acting in good faith, so let’s first assume that Robert Foster genuinely believes he is the hero of this story. Let’s assume that when the Mississippi gubernatorial candidate denied a female journalist access to his campaign because she is female, he truly saw himself as a bulwark against moral decay. This doesn’t make him right, of course, but it does give context to the problem — albeit a context that should terrify us all.
Larrison Campbell, a female reporter with Mississippi Today, revealed this week that she had asked to shadow Foster for a day on the campaign trail. Two of her colleagues were already following other contenders, but Foster turned down Campbell’s request — unless, that is, she brought along a male colleague. The reason? He obeys the “Billy Graham rule,” refusing to be alone with any woman other than his wife, or, as he put it, “avoid any decision that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”
Criticism followed, and Foster bristled at it: “The liberal left . . . can’t believe, that even in 2019, someone still values their relationship with their wife and upholds their Christian Faith,” he tweeted.
But unfortunately, there’s not a single inch of moral high ground achieved via the Billy Graham rule, which purports to honor marriage vows. In similar fashion, Vice President Pence once said he would not dine alone with a woman to whom he wasn’t married. But rules like these don’t honor your wife. They just presume that your marriage vows are so flimsy that you can’t be trusted to uphold them unless a babysitter monitors you. It’s rather like a thief sanctimoniously announcing that he brings a parole officer every time he goes to the bank to make sure he doesn’t rob it. Good for you, dude, for knowing your own limitations — but it doesn’t make you better than the rest of us, who manage to regularly not steal things even when we’re completely alone.