Monica Hesse: The unique harm we cause when we dissect a powerful woman’s love life

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to members of the media at her alma mater, Howard University, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019 in Washington, following her announcement earlier in the morning that she will run for president. Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of President Donald Trump's nominees, entered the Democratic presidential race on Monday. Vowing to "bring our voices together," Harris would be the first woman to hold the presidency and the second African-American if she succeeds. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

As of this week, women are running for president — multiple women — and lo, the country has been awarded the chance for a do-over. This time, we swear, we won’t order them to smile more if they really want our votes. This time, we’ll stop using phrases such as “likable enough?” when what we really mean is, “too many ovaries?”

Our collective consciousness has been raised and so we’ll begin by ... excavating one of the candidate’s decades-old love life?


The candidate in question is Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., whose past relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was confirmed for the national media when Brown published an op-ed: Yes, they’d dated. And, yes, he “may have influenced her career” by appointing her to two commissions. But then again, he’d boosted the careers of a lot of people, he wrote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Gavin Newsom were examples.

Kamala Harris? She was unique, Brown claimed, only in that, "after I helped her, [she] sent word that I would be indicted if I 'so much as jaywalked' while she was D.A."

The two things were separate, according to Brown. 1) They dated. 2) He helped her career. The latter didn't have anything to do with the former.

Whether you believe that probably depends on whether you believe one can separate someone's professional qualifications from their dinner companionship. Plenty of critics did not believe this was possible: "Hey @KamalaHarris given that you're so vocal about the #MeToo movement, what are your thoughts on sleeping your way to the top of your political career?" queried right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren in a representative tweet.

Is this just politics as usual? Is this just politics for women? Politics for men and women who knew Willie Brown — whose career was dogged by accusations of patronage?

Plenty of us have, after all, spent an awful lot of time discussing Bill Clinton's willie, and Anthony Weiner's wiener: it's not that we don't talk about the sexual predilections of male candidates.

But we do talk about them in a different way. We talk about men abusing power. We talk about women not even deserving power. The distinction matters, because the conversation isn't really about sex, it's about legitimacy. It's about who we think has earned the right to be successful, and what criteria we'll invent, and who we'll apply it to.

"Maybe we should stop accusing women of 'sleeping their way' to the top," Erin Gloria Ryan wrote in the Daily Beast in 2017. "Maybe because men have been the ones sleeping women to the middle and bottom."

Ryan was talking specifically about women in the entertainment industry whose reputations were stained by Harvey Weinstein’s predation. But the application is more general, and the pattern is often the same: a talented woman dates a powerful man. And from then on, whether the relationship lasted two decades or two months, her success will be traced back to that man. As if her own hard work was less important than his cameo appearance in her life — as if she were actually the cameo in her own story.

Google the hideous phrase, “women who slept their way to the top,” and encounter a series of chipper lists and poisonous speculations. Chelsea Handler was accused of launching her career via a relationship with Comcast executive Ted Harbert — though, of course, her career had already been launched. She’d had acting roles and appearances on the Tonight Show before they even met.

The current ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, once publicly asserted that MSNBC’s Katy Tur owed her success to a relationship with Keith Olbermann. But she’d already worked for her success via dues-paying jobs at network affiliates — a common career path for news anchors.

Does it help your career to date someone powerful? I’d assume so. Does it also help to play golf with someone powerful, or smoke cigars with someone powerful, or belong to Skull and Bones? I’d assume that, too. But for decades we’ve accepted those relationships — many of which benefited only men — as standard procedure for how executives and politicians get ahead. In August, ProPublica published a story about a trifecta of Mar-a-Lago members exerting influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs. None of them had military or government experience, but they did have long-standing acquaintanceships with the president.

Was Harris the only appropriate candidate for the commissions to which Brown appointed her? I don't know.

I do know that by the time she met Brown, she’d already graduated from Howard University, where she’d been elected to the student government and the lauded debate team, and she’d already graduated from law school, and she was already working as a deputy district attorney in one of the most populous counties in the United States — and maybe, just maybe, she was already going places on her own?

He wasn't her boss. The relationship was consensual. Dating a technically-still-married man 30 years one's senior might not be the relationship choice that most of us would make, but it's understandable that smart government officials in San Francisco's political scene would end up socializing with each other. Was Harris supposed to date only morons with whom she had nothing in common?

Welcome to the 2020 campaign. I’m not saying there are easy answers to all of my questions. But the only way a woman is ever going to be elected to the top of anything is if we stop making insinuations about how she got there.

Monica Hesse | The Washington Post

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”