UNAPOLOGETICALLY POWERFUL: The "Bitch" is Back
In 2007, Dana Perino made history. For the first time, the face of the White House sported a cropped blonde bob and kitten heels. Perino was the first female republican White House Press Secretary, where she served under former President George W. Bush.
The story of her journey from there to her current position as a political pundit for Fox’s “The Five” is one Perino tries to share with younger generations. She does this through Minute Mentoring, an organization she created in order to connect young women with professional executives in politics, finance and media.
“It’s like professional speed dating,” Perino said. “I don’t have a monopoly on great advice.”
There is a growing network of professional women like Perino seeking to encourage younger generations to consider a range of careers typically dominated by men.
Michelle Cove, executive director of MEDIAGIRLS, has found that being a source of inspiration is simple.
“I think it comes down to giving [girls] the tools and skills to practice speaking up and sharing their ideas, even when others disagree.”
With organizations like MEDIAGIRLS attempting to remove gender barriers in the workforce, a major inhibiting factor is the reactions of peers to assertive women. These reactions trail all the way from the boardroom back to girls’ childhoods.
“I was being bossy and Jake So-and-So called me a crazy bitch,” said Melissa Miller, a freshman at American University. She laughs when she thinks about how she cried after hearing the insult as a sixth grader. Still, the incident had an impact.
“I became a lot shyer,” she said. “I was more hesitant about speaking out in class.”
Miller’s experience is not unique. In an independent study conducted among 515 AU students, 89 percent reported that they had been referred to as a bitch at least once in their life. Of that group, 80 percent identified as female.
Tazreena Sajjad, a professor in the AU Global Governance, Politics and Security Program, considers the use of the word to be an effective tool in discouraging individuals to be fully forthcoming.
“It is a silencing technique,” Sajjad said. “We also use it to describe men who we associate with effeminate characteristics. It’s disempowering to all genders.”
Sajjad explained that the word is used to criticize a woman showing strength, as well as men who fail to meet standards of perceived masculinity. According to Sajjad, these criticisms represent how society constructs gender.
“Representations of gender can be very nuanced or overt, but are part of every way we engage with concepts of identity or the commodification of the human body,” Sajjad said. “That’s the role the media plays.”
Many turn to the public forum to understand how media and advocacy networks like MEDIAGIRLS interact. Here, political pundits, like the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum Sabrina Schaeffer, have the opportunity to comment on the limitations and benefits of gender roles.
When Schaeffer visited AU in February, she advocated for her doctrine of conservative feminism, preserving gender roles and recognizing “inherent differences” between men and women.
Schaeffer questioned how the media covers and sensationalizes workplace discrimination.
“I can think of one instance when I worked on the Hill where I was met with someone who just wasn’t very nice and wasn’t very thoughtful in the words he chose to use,” Schaeffer said. “I think those are instances where you can speak up if it’s worth it to you. I think you have to look at the big picture. Is it really limiting your opportunities, keeping you from getting what you want professionally or personally? Or is it an inconvenience?”
Schaeffer believes that many instances of perceived inequity for women are isolated events.
“There’s just nothing systematic about it, I suppose,” she said. “There are just better and worse people out there. I’ve probably been called a bitch, but I would hope that those words are reserved for when someone cuts you off in traffic.”
Schaffer advocates for ending the “victimhood narrative” of women who campaign for workplace equality. Yet, some have criticized her conservative feminism as a non-inclusive subset of the larger feminist movement.
"People are still trying to figure out how women in public office can be assertive and aggressive with their ideas without sounding shrill or yelling."
Jeffery Guzman, a freshman at AU, found Schaeffer’s definition of feminism to be finite.
“Her message is limited to her own experience as a white heterosexual woman with typical family structure,” Guzman said. “Her privilege has blinded her from seeing that not everyone has had the opportunities that she has.”
Schaeffer does, however, acknowledge potential problems concerning the language used to reference women in a professional environment.
“People are still trying to figure out how women in public office can be assertive and aggressive with their ideas without sounding shrill or yelling,” she said.
“For a woman to play as an equal in a field, she is required to play by the rules established by men, for men.”
Not everyone agrees that learning to play the rules requires conceding one’s values or sense of self.
“Learn to adapt without compromising who you are,” advised Andrea Agathoklis, an AU alumna and anti-trust lawyer at a recent Women in Leadership Alumni Panel.
Fellow panelist Mariana Fanning, a business executive whose career developed in the late 1960s, mirrored Agathoklis’ encouragement.
“Think big and do not be afraid of failure,” Fanning said. “Nobody saw me as doing everything I did—I just worked like hell. Eventually they backed off and let me work.”
While politicians, pundits and activists may vary in how much they stress the presence of gender discrimination, most consistently stress the importance of utilizing professional outreach to compel young women to put their foot in the door.
“I can learn as much from [students] are they learn from me,” Cove said. “Young women who understand their value and how to advocate for themselves are more likely to pursue whatever career interests them.”
Perino also wants all young professionals to recognize that being a woman “is not a hindrance.” She believes it is essential to turn towards other exemplary female figures. One of Perino’s role models is Holly Probes, her former chief of staff on Capitol Hill
“She could write, think well and argue persuasively while being dignified and gracious,” Perino said. “She stood up straight and all of the congressmen would always listen to her, whatever she said. I immediately thought, ‘Oh. I like her.’”
Engaging female youth is widely considered an important first step in combatting the lack of representation of women in politics and media. Some say there are enough female executives in varying fields, but a list of a few names of female CEOs cannot combat the New York Times statistic that there are more men named John running large companies in the U.S. than there are women in the same positions.
Furthermore, less than 20 percent of Congress is comprised of women, and only 31 percent percent of them are women of color, while nearly 40 percent of all women in the U.S. do not identify as Caucasian.
“Change never comes easily,” Sajjad said. “You have to keep pushing that rock up the hill. Always. It’s a big responsibility, but we have to take it on.”
Sajjad believes it is essential to acknowledge the privileges certain women have so that society can subsequently use those resources to move towards equality.
Donna Brazile, Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and AU’s Wonk of the Year has dedicated her life to executing this.
“I’m not wounded by my experiences of dealing with racism or sexism, or any of the other ‘isms’,” she said. “My struggle was about making sure that I could open doors for others to come through.”
While Perino believes that using the word “bitch” only signifies the inability to express oneself in more eloquent terms, Sajjad notes that some attempt to redefine the term “bitch” to evoke strength and brilliance.
It is an effort that is not limited to binary perceptions of gender, age or race. For Sajjad, this initiative signifies an effort to end the notion that an individual’s identity should be compromised for fear of judgement.
“A bitch is a mother dog,” Sajjad said. “A mother dog reproduces like any mammal and has puppies. Why is that inherently problematic in and of itself?”
The people who called Dana Perino a bitch watched her from their couches as she addressed the nation from behind the White House podium. The people who called Gloria Steinem a bitch walk past her book in the windows of every major bookstore. The people who call Hillary Clinton a bitch continue to watch her campaign for President of the United States.
In a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live, comedians Amy Poehler and Tina Fey recognized this in their segment.
“People say that Hillary is a bitch,” Fey said. “And let me say something about that. Yeah. She is. And so am I. And so is this one”--she pointed to Poehler--“Bitches get stuff done. Bitch is the new black!”
For Brazile, it comes down to women understanding their power.
“If you are bossy, wear it,” she said. “Be the boss of your future, be the boss of your country.”