Maureen Dowd Doesn’t Define Girlish

Reading this old profile of Maureen Dowd in New York magazine, I can sort of see how Dowd has always seen herself as a woman in a man’s world, with all that implies. And I don’t doubt that her challenges have been real, nor that she’s been judged at times by standards that would not be applied to men. I get that.

But she’s really let this adversarial self-image define her and her work. I think you can see both aspects of her career in the following:

Though Dowd’s importance as an antagonist of the [Bush] White House has never been greater, the book throws open the door to her critics’ favorite complaint: frivolousness. “When I started as a White House correspondent,” the second female in the position in the Times’ history, “there was a lot of criticism from guys saying, ‘She focuses too much on the person but not enough on policy.’ I never understood that argument at all. I just didn’t agree with the premise,” says Dowd. “Even Scotty Reston,” the storied Washington correspondent who joined the Times the day World War II began and decidedly did not groove on women in the workplace, “said that after the president got the bomb, you had to sort of focus on his judgment and who he was as a person, because that’s all you had. All the great traumatizing events of American history—Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran/contra stuff—have always been about the president’s personal demons and gremlins. So I always thought that criticism was just silly . . . as if it was a girlish thing to be focused on the person.”

There a defensiveness here that’s rooted in the idea that frivolousness is a female attribute. It’s true that she endeavors to justify her frivolity by arguing that the personalities of our presidents are extremely important in a nuclear age, but that alone would not be disputed by anyone. What people dispute is that she can plausibly make the claim that she treats our presidents’ personalities with seriousness.

President Obama despises her because the “acid darts” she sends his way are contributing nothing of value to the public discourse. It has nothing to do with her gender. When the president had an opportunity to tell her face-to-face what he thought of her work, “he was patronizing and disrespectful to Maureen in a way that [David Axelrod] had rarely seen.”

Of course, I wasn’t in the room, but I suspect that Obama’s treatment of Dowd was an indication that he considered her beyond hope. He wasn’t trying to improve her work or her treatment of him in her columns and books. He just wanted her to know, beyond any doubt, that he had contempt for her and her work.

Down’s response to this is to play the gender card.

“I write about him according to how he’s doing, not how he’s treating me,” Dowd wrote. “The idea that I punished him for giving me his opinion is not true and plays into an unfortunate stereotype of women, the Furies swooping down.”

…”If anyone acted out of spite, I’d say it was the White House, which … no longer invites me to the President’s background briefings for the columnists while continuing to invite my male colleagues, even though they, too, have written some critical things about the President,” Dowd said. “But here again, while I’d like to be included, that is not a consideration in what I write.”

There are two ideas here. The first is that it’s sexist to accuse her of harboring ill-will towards that president for treating her with scorn, as if this isn’t a universal reaction human beings have to being disrespected. The second is that she’s been singled out for pariah status because she’s a woman. In other words, the critical things she wrote were equal in kind to the critical things that many men wrote who were not disinvited to background briefings.

But this gets back to the frivolousness of her criticisms. It gets back to the complete contempt the president has for the quality of her analysis. Other (male and female) colleagues of Dowd’s may have written harsh assessments of the president without suffering any retaliation, but that may just mean that the president found some kind of merit or quality in their critiques.

For Dowd to accuse her accusers of thinking she’s girlish probably says more about her own self doubts than it does about her detractors’ gender-bias.

She writes from a self-consciously feminine perspective, which means that her output reflects what she thinks is a woman’s point of view. This is probably why she sees attacks on her perspective as attacks on women. She’s trying to be girlish, at least as she understands girlishness. But there are other people of both genders who are equally superficial, and there are many female columnists of great substance, including those who write from a “girlish” perspective.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.