Ruth Marcus: Upending the macho dynamic

BY RUTH MARCUS Modified: June 12, 2013 at 7:29 am •  Published: June 12, 2013
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WASHINGTON — The two photos serve as powerful visual bookends for any discussion of gender and the Obama White House.

The first was worth its thousand words, and sparked even more: the president sitting in the Oval Office with 10 men arrayed in front of him, and Valerie Jarrett’s leg barely visible.

The second, six months later, was equally striking, if less noticed: the president, Susan Rice, his new national security adviser, and Samantha Power, his nominee for United Nations ambassador, striding down the colonnade outside the Oval Office.

Rice, in the middle and a head shorter than the other two, has her arms flung about their waists. Departing national security adviser Tom Donilon is off to the side, excluded from the new, estrogen-heavy inner circle.

Was this image spontaneous, Rice exuberantly in the moment with two close pals? Or was it scripted, a choreographed counterpoint to the Oval Office image? (Is asking that cynical question a sign of having been in Washington too long?)

In some sense, the answer is irrelevant. The symbolism is the message. The girls are back in town.

When it comes to gender, the Obama White House is in a transition state, changing but not yet fully transformed.

Both photos captured a truth about the Obama White House.

It has exuded a decided boys’ club air; Jarrett’s leg notwithstanding. Yet the presence of a few well-placed women such as Jarrett and Rice, and the addition of a few more — Kathy Ruemmler as White House counsel, Lisa Monaco as counterterrorism adviser, Sylvia Mathews Burwell at the Office of Management and Budget — upends the macho dynamic. These are not Dean Acheson’s national security meetings.

And the changes at the White House mirror the changes in society as a whole, choppy and unfinished but also inexorable.

Listen to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant explaining America’s mediocre performance on education. “Can I tell the truth?” he asked The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan. “Both parents started working. And the mom is in the workplace.”

Bryant knew enough to start backpedaling, fast. “It’s not a bad thing,” he added. “I’m going to get in trouble, I can see the emails tomorrow. … It’s a great American story now that women are certainly in the workplace.”

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