Recent reports in The Guardian, the Huffington Post and Above the Law that Yale Law School professor Amy Chua noted to some female law students that all of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's clerks looked like models might seem more like gossip than a real issue to be taken up by the Senate in considering whether to confirm him. But it’s a concrete example of what I call “soft misogyny” — the ways in which women are taught how to navigate a world set up for men, instead of demanding the world accommodate and welcome them as equals.
The implication of Chua’s alleged statements, of course, was that, instead of advocating for young female students be judged on their legal acumen as the men were, Chua had to teach them to outwardly mold themselves to a sexist system that runs on pleasing men — an odd way to mentor.
An examination of the origination and dissemination of this harmful culture is urgent to examine given that two graduates of this single high school, the all-male, Catholic Georgetown Preparatory School ("Forming Men for Others since 1789") may take up two seats on the Supreme Court — current justice Neil Gorsuch is also a graduate — deciding cases on essential women's issues. But it’s also important because this granular policing of professional women’s expressions of femininity reinforces a culture that makes women more or less likely to succeed based on their looks rather than their resumes.
For instance, in my second professional job, at Goldman Sachs, not only was one of the few top female executives in my department openly talked about for her leg-shaving habits, but my boss, a woman, took one look at me in my Brooks Brothers skirt-suit and insisted on "fixing" how I dressed.
Mainly, her problem was with my shoes. Like many women in New York, I navigated the rush hour scrum on the subway in sneakers and changed into pumps at the office. But early in my tenure, my boss took me aside and told me that my sneaker routine was not acceptable because “only” secretaries did that; wearing high heels whenever I was in the building would show the higher-ups that I was ambitious
So I started changing my shoes in the lobby. I still refused to wear heels — I wasn’t going to hurt my feet to meet her sartorial standards — but I spent an inordinate amount of time devising a compromise. I bought expensive flats, Ferragamos with a big grosgrain bow on the toe, cemented by a large, gold logo. The iconic logo was recognizable among women who worked on Wall Street and so, even though she deemed flats evocative of my lack of ambition, she couldn't forbid them.
Months after our ceasefire, after the office holiday party, I was walking to the subway with colleagues when one of them got her boss-appropriate heels stuck in a subway grate. Though we freed her after a few minutes, I still think of her, a slim woman, her slightly-inebriated form teetering precariously on wobbly ankles, almost hobbled before she fell when her heel got stuck in the grate.
A signal of her ambition.
I had once hoped, early on, that my Goldman boss — an alumna of the first class that allowed women at Harvard Business School — would be a bigger advocate for other women inside the company. But I see now, decades later, that women who do try to change male-dominated culture are swimming against a powerful tide, and often working against their own self-interest.
When boys and men are taught to regard women as something to be objectified, and that part of our value is in looking the way menwant women to look, individual acts of resistance seem unlikely to make a difference — especially at the junior level.
Perhaps Professor Chua's advice her students was just a pragmatic way of getting them launched in a sexist profession and culture she felt incapable of or unwilling to change, hoping they could to navigate their way out of it from the inside. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but perhaps it makes it more understandable.
I am outraged for the young women of today who not only have to still prove their competence in a culture that often naturally dismisses women, but also have the additional burden of figuring exactly how much they will allow themselves to be pushed around by a male-dominated culture that demands fealty but offers little in return. Men get to succeed on their merits (and often, despite a lack thereof), but for women, there's no perfect way to play the game.
For me, getting rid of my pinstriped shirts, the silk bowties, my two pairs of Ferragamo pumps and the endless wool gabardine skirt-suits when I because a writer was an act of both liberation and resignation — I was freed from the game, but only because I was no longer a player.
Now I can wear sneakers to work but, at the coffee machine in a faculty office, a much older male professor still looked me up and down with such an appraising frankness that it made me uncomfortable; a few weeks later, the story broke about his long history of harassment.
I may be wearing sneakers now, but that soft misogyny is still there, and now is the time to face it.