You can just imagine my glee when I flipped through this week’s Newsweek to find an essay headlined “Who You Callin’ A Lady?. The deck read “The soft bigotry of high expectations.”
Holy jumpin’ Undecided, Batman! Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about in this space for months?
Enter the buzzkill. I realized that the essay, written by Kathleen Deveny, was just one more knee-jerk apologia for University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert’s reprehensible behavior in a game against BYU.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last month, you know that Lambert was suspended from her team for what might generously be called dirty playing (check the ESPN video below): She tripped players. She threw punches. She took players out with no ball in sight. Ugliest of all, she threw an opponent to the ground by yanking her by the ponytail and snapping her head back.
Let me back up. Both my daughters played soccer, at various levels. They attended a high school where women’s soccer was a feeder for top level university programs across the country. For years, members of the women’s soccer team at the university where I teach have made their way onto the rosters of the national team and the Olympic team. I’ve never played in a soccer game, but I’ve watched probably hundreds of them: Lambert goes way beyond dirty. Don’t want to take my word for it? Listen to former Olympian Julie Foudy.
Which is why I am so dismayed to see Lambert thrown up as a feminist icon, with her behavior a symbol of how society’s high expectations for women hold them back. The issue is real, but when you use Lambert as the poster girl, well, suddenly, the argument starts to disintegrate.
In fairness, Deveny makes some good points. When she gets past comparing Lambert’s suspension — and the media storm that surrounded it — to the reinstatement of football player Michael Vick, she gets onto less shaky ground:
The difference is that we expect bad behavior from men—on the field and off. (In some ways, men justify our low opinion of them: they are 10 times more likely to murder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.) But we expect better from women. We didn’t fight this hard to be involved in organized sports just so we could act like a bunch of dumb jocks, right? We want women to be honest, compassionate, and nice—you know, like our moms.
So what’s the harm in expecting the fairer sex to play fairer? It’s what George W. Bush might call the soft bigotry of high expectations. If we insist on holding women and girls to higher standards than men, we set them up to disappoint us. It makes me worry about my 9-year-old daughter, and not because I hope she will someday pull hair with the best of them. I think she is sometimes held to stricter behavior standards than her boys-will-be-boys classmates. Those higher expectations follow us onto the job, where women are allegedly not only better behaved and more honest but cheaper—you only have to pay us 80 cents on the dollar! So why aren’t we represented at the highest levels of business? One problem is that women aren’t supposed to be aggressive or self-promoting—that’s nasty male behavior—even though it’s often rewarded. And yet if professional women are too nice and cuddly, they don’t seem decisive or tough enough to be leaders. “The ‘women are wonderful’ effect does have a terrible downside,” says Alice H. Eagly, a psychology professor and coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. “If you’re too nice, you’re seen as not really appropriate for high-level positions.”
Good points. (Except that bit about Mom. Since when is Mom a synonym for soft?) But maybe we need to start thinking beyond her message. If it is true that women are held to different, and higher standards, maybe it’s not the expectations that do us in, but rather the institutional structures that support them. Playing like the boys for the past several decades really hasn’t gotten us that far. Could it be that what needs to be changed are the structures — not the women?
A few months ago, in a post on the differences between men and women and how we need to embrace them, Shannon quoted a speech by Omega Women’s Institute founder, Elizabeth Lesser:
We’ve had centuries of power and leadership where men have been at the helm. There’s some real serious gaps in representation in the world. And also the world’s in trouble. What would happen if women became empowered and could lead from their core basic values? Not just let’s put women into a structure that is about up-down power, like I have power over you. But what if women could actually influence the way power was wielded in the world, from a core feminine place. … The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.
Which is why this whole l’affaire Lambert has me so dismayed. It’s not that she was castigated for playing like the boys — it’s that she was playing like the very worst of them.