As a feminist who believes in equality without apology for all women regardless of age, race, national origin, philosophy, creed, disability, sexual orientation or identity, I wanted to like Meg Whitman. Not vote for her as my governor -- I believe government should choose providing services over rendering business profits. But I wanted to respect her as a woman making difficult choices in the business and political arenas because a strong effort by a woman opens doors for all other women, and the more women in public life the closer America moves to equality.
In my travels for campaign boot camps around California, many women -- including Democrats -- told me they admired Whitman's entrepreneurial success and see her as a strong role model. A common refrain -- "she made millions in a man's world -- that's something." I cautioned my friends and operatives to respect that sentiment and appeal with Jerry Brown's substantive feminist agenda. Of the two GOP CEOs running as novice candidates for the top two statewide jobs -- Meg Whitman for Governor and Carly Fiorina for Senate -- Whitman seemed the more attractive due to her pro-choice, non-outsourcing ways. Many told me that if they were going to split their ticket, Meg Whitman was the Republican CEO they chose over Fiorina.
Now Meg Whitman is in hot water due to her conduct with a woman named Nicky who used to work for her family until Whitman decided to run for office. Nicky worked for the family using someone else's documentation. In 2003 the Social Security Administration sent a red-flag no-match letter to the Whitman family. Whitman neither reported nor assisted her employee to resolve the situation -- and only fired her when the race for office began years later. Now Meg Whitman, who spent $120 million on ads touting her business acumen and calls for employer responsibility for hiring illegal immigrants, is offering to take a polygraph lie detector test to tell what she didn't know and when she didn't know it. Maidgate has Whitman itching to prove that she didn't make business decisions in running her own household in an effort to avoid the employer accountability she preaches for others.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, a woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water. Maidgate is Meg Whitman's tea bag moment.
Maidgate upends what we thought we knew about Meg Whitman from her $120 million ad campaign. While some wags have suggested that Meg Whitman's $120 million in ads could have been better spent as $119 million in ads and $1 million to the maid, the truth always comes out. Today, tough questions about feminism, class and immigration have to be answered.
The feminist implications of Maidgate are complicated. At a macro level, for women candidates left right and center, voter attitudes often revolve around two questions: can she manage my money and keep me safe? Female candidates have to climb that double stair - ascend to success in the public policy arena and success in overcoming gender stereotypes and pointed questions revolved around the issues of money and security. See the Barbara Lee Family Foundation website's bipartisan polling for examples that both make and female candidates get asked these questions but the women are graded more skeptically than the men by male and female voters alike. Fair or not, women candidates are going to be graded more harshly on how they make business decisions with their households. Thus (a) being female and (b) touting business smarts probably makes Whitman's recovery from Maidgate a steeper climb.
The class implications of Maidgate are troubling. We have a case of a woman who hired a woman to work in her home, raising the class question of how a wealthy woman treated a poor one. Did Whitman choose to not report or fire Nicky because she could exploit her maid with lower wages than she would have to pay a legal resident?
The immigration consequences of Maidgate strike at the heart of the race for governor. Whoever wins will have to unite a fractured electorate with a broad bipartisan path to legalization, negotiating with a center-left coalition to overcome a tea party Republican borders-only opposition. Many in the immigration reform movement complain that wages are pressed downward by employers who do not pay living wages -- a talking point Whitman herself makes on the trail. Was she one of those wage-depressing, immigrant-exploiting employers she critiques? And if so, what message does that send to the immigrant women of California? That you should accept lower pay and lower aspirations for fear of deportation or unemployment?
This weekend when Brown and Whitman debate, I hope these questions about feminism, class, and immigration are asked and answered. We'll see either a more compassionate less defensive Meg Whitman at the Spanish-language debate in Fresno talking about how this is a teaching moment for her as she struggled to follow the law, not reporting or assisting her maid before or after the employment. Or she'll double down on the polygraph and attack Jerry Brown, liberals, and unions.
With Latinos, independents, and women (some of whom fall in more than one category) up for grabs and absentee ballots in the mail starting Tuesday, Meg Whitman's is definitely in hot water. Her tea bag moment will show whether she has the strength of character and conviction to lead California.
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