It would be heartening to believe that the 50 senators who voted against Betsy DeVos—as well as the teachers, parents, and generally concerned citizens who filled up their senators’ voicemails with calls protesting her appointment—were simply committed to providing the nation’s public schools with a highly qualified leader. However, it seems some of the outrage directed specifically at DeVos had to due with the fact that she was a woman. It looked and felt a lot like the vitriol hurled at Hillary Clinton for her entire career, particularly in the most recent presidential election.
The association of both Clinton and DeVos with children’s welfare and education seems to have triggered a subconscious recognition that these women are stepping beyond the boundaries traditionally set for women in politics.
Psychological research on “shifting standards” and “stereotype fit” suggests that once attention is drawn to the fact that a political figure is a woman – as it is by these women’s association with education and children’s welfare — they face an extra burden of proof of competence.
When modern democracy was invented across the 18th and 19th century, political theorists struggled to include women in their accounts of national citizenship. When women were included, it was as wives and mothers, whose participation in the public sphere was deemed necessary to the welfare of families and children. When they were excluded, the argument was that the needs of families and children made women’s participation in political life impossible. From the vantage point of the 21st century, with female leaders elected to some of the highest governmental positions in the United States, Americans like to think that we have transcended those concerns. The response to DeVos and Clinton suggests that we have not.
Scholars of 21st century women’s leadership at work and in politics point out that women are still expected to use their qualifications on behalf of others, rather than for their own professional advancement. Joan Williams, founding director of the University of California’s Center of Work Life Law, argues in “What Works for Women at Work” that all women are expected to forefront the needs of others, even to the detriment of their own credibility.
Compared to all the other President Donald Trump nominees for cabinet positions, DeVos has been widely called “the worst.” Her competitors for this dishonor have included Andrew Puzder, who was charged with domestic abuse by his wife and violations of the laws he was to uphold as Labor Secretary; and Jeff Sessions, who was rejected as a federal judge in 1986 due to racist remarks. Rex Tillerson, newly named Secretary of State, has close ties to Russia’s state oil corporation, Rosneft, and he has no government experience.
DeVos’s lack of qualifications speak for themselves, yet it hardly seems worse to dismember Michigan’s public schools than to have a history of disenfranchising voters, or being the one of the few Americans to call Putin a personal friend.
As with the presidential run to the White House, the female candidate absorbs the most vitriol. As different as the ethics of Clinton and DeVos are, the response to DeVos is reminiscent of media rhetoric calling Trump and Clinton both “flawed candidates,” as if their shortcomings were equivalent. Clinton, as a lawyer, Senator and Secretary of State was far more qualified than Trump; yet she was cast as his peer.
DeVos who is surely Tillerson’s and Puzder’s peer in terms of her lack of relevant qualifications is considered more of a national embarrassment.
You could argue that what explains the anger towards DeVos is that, to many Americans, education is more personally relevant than voting rights or international relations. Americans with stable addresses, drivers’ licenses, and school-aged children are less likely to be worried about a hobbled Department of Justice than a collapsing Department of Education. On the other hand, perhaps, as Charles Pierce points out in Esquire, DeVos was the perfect storm of incompetence, commitment to taking apart the public institution she was hired to protect, and big money.
The counterexample to the claim that DeVos’s gender had something to do with the scorn heaped on her is, of course, Nikki Haley, who sailed through her confirmation as US Ambassador to the United Nations. The success of Haley, and in general the successes of a small number of women in business and politics, do not prove that gender is irrelevant. Gender does not disqualify women as systematically as it did half a century ago, but it remains a barrier.
If we are to move forward with gender equity in politics on both sides of the aisle, there needs to be as much opposition to male nominees who are as unqualified and disqualified as female nominees. Instead, what we saw was anger equity for both DeVos and Clinton.
Women on both sides of the aisle, no matter their qualifications are continued to be judged by a different set of standards than men.
Amy Shuffelton is Assistant Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies at Loyola University Chicago. She is also a fellow in the Public Voice OpEd Project.