Inkwell already has commented (here and here) on allegations in a new book that women felt they were discriminated against early on in the Obama White House. The matter is today the subject of a story in the Washington Post:
Friction about the roles of women in the Obama White House grew so intense during the first two years of the president's tenure that he was forced to take steps to reassure senior women on his staff that he valued their presence and their input.
At a dinner in November 2009, several senior female aides complained directly to the president that men enjoyed greater access to him and often muscled them out of key policy discussions.
Those tensions prompted Obama, urged on by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, to elevate more women into senior White House positions, recognize them more during staff meetings and increase the female presence in the upper ranks of the reelection campaign.
"There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn't figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House," Jarrett said in an interview Monday. "Most of the women hadn't worked on the campaign, and so they didn't have a personal relationship with the president."
Was the campaign too mean for an itsy-bitsy woman? Just kidding.
The book that raised the question is Ron Susskind's "Confidence Men, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President." The most amazing tidbit from the book as far as I have seen came from former White House communications director Anita Dunn, who said of the White House "this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women."
This is strong stuff. I admit that I am still unsure what to make of it. One of my problems with jumping on the bandwagon is that some women cry "Discrimination!" at the drop of a hat: "He didn't call on me at the meeting? Is it because I am a woman?" No, Mizzy, it's because of the dumb things you said at the last meeting! On the other hand, women are often treated badly by men who are nevertheless outspoken in defense of the feminist agenda (see: Lewinsky, Monica).
Even this behind-the-scenes stuff, fascinating though it is, doesn quite help me make up my mind one way or the other:
Some early efforts to elevate women foundered. The first White House communications director, Ellen Moran, departed quickly, after a rocky tenure. Others never quite fit in, or failed to be "in the jet stream" of the most important events of the day, one official said.
According to another official, the president initially discounted the complaints he heard that women, particularly on his economic team, were making. He saw the tough climate as just that – the intense atmosphere of a White House, fostered by competitive people at the top of their game.
But as tensions between Romer and Summers, in particular, escalated, Jarrett counseled Obama to give the issue its due.
"I said, ‘Look, I think that we have some issues with making people, particularly the new women, a part of the team and giving them a better sense of you and how you value their opinion,' " Jarrett said, recalling her conversation with the president.
I am always skeptical of allegations of sexism. Many such charges are flung purposely about by women who are willing to use them to help climb the ladder. Presumably, the women in the White House were ambitious. Still, and it hurts me to give in and say it, but I veer reluctantly towards the conclusion that the Obama White House was…sexist.