The Detroit News

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Let’s have same standards for men, women in power

By Cathy Young
The Detroit News

It’s not personal, but I feel rather let down by Jane Swift. In the fall of 1998, Swift, a moderate Republican, ran for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts while pregnant — and some social conservatives grumbled that a woman shouldn’t take a high-level job with a child on the way.

Swift got elected and gave birth, while her husband Charles Hunt put his construction business on hold to be a dad. In a couple of talks, I have cited this story as an example of why “pro-family” folks shouldn’t butt in to question family arrangements that work for other people. I don’t think I’ll be able to cite it again.

Earlier this month, newspapers in Massachusetts revealed that Lt. Gov. Mom had used state employees to baby-sit her daughter on office visits and occasionally at her home. Initially, Swift insisted she had done nothing wrong. She explained that she saw her staffers as friends who were voluntarily helping out — indeed, she would return the favors any time. (I can just see a secretary popping in to ask if the lieutenant governor could watch her kid for a while.) More than a week later, she admitted her error.

So far, none of the people who sniped at Swift during her campaign have piped up with a “We told you so.” Nevertheless, she is widely seen as someone who has given working mothers a black eye — or, at best, someone who exemplifies the hardships mothers face trying to balance work and family.

Of course, there are mothers in public office who don’t ask the staff to pitch in with child care — such as Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, who had a 1-year-old daughter when she got elected. And, of course, male officials also have used public employees for personal errands.

That doesn’t get Swift off the hook: While her sins shouldn’t be visited on all working mothers, she is hardly exempt from blame. It’s ironic that a few female commentators have tried to use her gender as an excuse, saying criticism of Swift reflects a “double standard” because men have done such things for generations. (Yes — and in recent decades, men have been skewered for it.) Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan wrote that Swift was more sympathetic than a male politician who abuses power “to line his pockets, to feel like A Real Big Shot,” or to pick up babes. Yet Eagan’s earlier column in defense of Swift mentioned a male official who had used a state employee to deliver groceries to his mother.

Swift’s “we’re all just friends” defense was another example of hiding behind her sex. The implication is that women don’t wield power as men do; they don’t really have subordinates — just non-hierarchical support networks. (Never mind that some of Swift’s “friends” didn’t see it that way and privately complained that they couldn’t say no to the boss.)

The Swift debacle also may give comfort to those who ridicule the notion of men taking care of children: Let a guy quit his job, and he’ll loaf about instead of caring for the kids. Conservative Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr sneers that “househusband” is a euphemism for an “unemployable” bum.

Eagan gripes that stay-at-home dads obviously feel much freer than stay-at-home moms to have someone take the kid off their hands. In fact, it appears that Hunt has done the bulk of child care and only dropped off the baby at the office to go for a one-hour jog when Swift worked more than 10 hours a day. Swift also had asked her staff to baby-sit when her husband was hospitalized. Yes, she should have paid someone for the services, but stay-at-home moms use baby-sitters, too. Maybe it was Swift who felt much freer to have her baby brought to the office than a male politician would feel.

The lesson of Jane Swift’s fall from grace is that women in power should be held to the same scrutiny as men — not that women should be treated differently because they get pregnant and give birth.


Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network. Her column is published on Wednesday. Write letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226 or fax to (313) 222-6417 or send an e-mail message to letters@detnews.com

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