On Tuesday, while speaking at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made a rhetorical boo-boo.
While speaking on a panel about women in politics alongside former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and former Hillary Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri, Gillibrand made this offhanded joke:
Here’s the full context of Gillibrand’s quote (emphasis added):
Look at a female in the military. She has every chance of getting killed, sacrificing her life for our country. Not only did she have to deal with a high prevalence rate of sexual assault, but they were denying her all the roles she wanted to play. She wasn’t allowed, eligible to be paid to be in combat, even though they kept sending her into combat.
And so that’s one of the reasons why, when you’re fighting that fight, it’s two sides: you’re not only fighting to be treated better and valued 100%, but do the job you want to do. And so making sure all roles were open to women in the military, because when women become commanders, they can then set the climate for the entire unit, and make sure sexual assault and harassment is eradicated.
And that’s why the empowerment of women is so important throughout the economy and through leadership through these offices, because we don’t value women in society, and that’s just the fact. And it’s not just, you know, ‘I feel exposed because I’m tearing up because I’m not like a man.’ No, how about, ‘I’m tearing up because I’m so angry and frustrated, and my emotional intelligence is going to make this company succeed.’ You know, if it wasn’t Lehman Brothers, but Lehman Sisters, we might not have had the financial collapse.
So it is the value that a woman brings to that table, that she has all these different life experiences, assets. And for women of color, it’s even more important, because she comes to the table with this host of experiences that are different, that will make not only the problem-solving better—because it will identify different problems—but then it will identify different solutions.
Before I clown on this comment too much, credit where credit is due: Gillibrand has made a concerted effort over the past year to appeal to the Bernie Sanders-loving Democratic base. She voted against all but two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, and has only voted in line with the Trump administration’s position 7.1% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s the lowest rate of any of her Democratic colleagues, including Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Gillibrand has also thrown her support behind progressive policy causes, from raising the minimum wage, to legalizing weed, to a federal jobs guarantee, to rejecting corporate PAC contributions. In the same CAP panel, Gillibrand talked about the scourge of predatory lending and the idea of postal banking, which would revolutionize financial services in the United States. It’s unfortunate that, in the same panel, she lapsed into a tired old idea about women’s supernatural ability to solve all of society’s ills.
Twitter users immediately pounced on the “Lehman Sisters” comment, including, uh, me:
This tweet is the winner:
Jokes aside, it’s important to reflect on why this type of rhetoric around “women’s empowerment” does little to help the cause of women’s equality. The idea that all women are alchemical beings who, like Glinda the Good Witch, spread good governance wherever they go is facile, especially when considering the woman nominated to be the CIA’s next director. It’s equally facile to think that hiring more female bankers to run the nation’s most crooked financial institutions would have changed the tides of history. Women are greedy, too.
It’s clear that Gillibrand meant this comment as at least a bit tongue-in-cheek. She probably does not literally believe that an all-female team of super-bankers could have prevented the 2008 economic recession. Still, this offhand comment reveals that Gillibrand’s personal ideology may be a bit behind where her stated policy positions are. If she really wants to earn support from the Democratic base in 2020, it will be important for her to understand why some of those voters may balk at this argument.