The recent brief dust-up (let’s hope it’s brief) over Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s use of the F- word as an epithet aimed at the European Union does highlight the dramatic change of culture in women in public life, including the highest ranks of the government.
While this is a scene that always has been dominated by men, more and more women are breaking through the vaunted glass ceiling to assume important roles in public and corporate affairs. In the process, however, the traditional reserve in language and attitude when women are present is slipping away. A major reason is women themselves, who beginning in the 1960s became comfortable with the “good old boy” profanity-laced language of the all-male board room. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
When I was a kid, the use of what we considered the ultimate pejorative, at least, was a big time social blunder that could chill a gathering quicker than finding a rat at the bottom of the punch bowl. I remember being harassed by a female high school classmate as I struggled up a hill with a basket of goodies. About half-way up, I made clear that she should go commit and impossible biological act and was instantly pounced on by every other girl present. It took some time to win forgiveness.
Even in the 1970s I recall a story related by a colleague who said he had been unexpectedly invited to an exclusive party filled with “beautiful people.” When he told a blue story, there was utter silence. You know, one of those “I wish I were anywhere else” moments. Suddenly, a cool blonde, dripping in diamonds and holding one of those ornamental cigarette holders from another era, capped his embarrassment. “Profanity, young man,” she said, “is the crutch of an inarticulate (expletive).” The other guests laughed heartily.
We all know what happened — hippies, the “summer of love,” Vietnam, and liberation of both men and women from their mother’s and grandmother’s Victorian restrictions, all of it exacerbated by the lowering of language of the movies and cable TV. We were free to speak our minds in the most vivid terms even if it included leaning heavily without restraint on the “crutch” words that by the way everyone knew, including the girls, when we were children.
The Vietnam protesters, including shockingly some female members of dedicated religious groups, used the F-bomb unsparingly and that permissibility drifted over to politics. Women generally in that category so far have resisted the use of profanity in public.
Do you remember the Nixon “locker room” language heard on the Watergate tapes?
What many women say in private is another matter, often even in banter with men. But nothing escapes attention for long and thus Victoria Nuland’s comment in private to the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine quickly became viral.
No one knows that better than Hillary Clinton, whose initial days as first lady produced a series of tales about not only her free use of barnyard language in abusive fashion to underlings, including those who were assigned to protect the president and his family, has been well documented. Arkansas voters apparently had been quite aware of her salty language. In one case after arriving in Washington, her salty upbraiding of those on the protective detail forced the then director of the Secret Service to launch a complaint with the president. The official was appointed to head another Treasury Department agency.
Will voters consider this penchant for the invective serious enough not to support Clinton if she runs for the presidency in 2016? They probably will not. Her qualifications as a candidate are unmistakable. Her reputation for not being an easy boss might not hurt either. Some of the best presidents have been difficult masters.
On the other hand there is a body of the electorate that finds this language and treatment of subordinates abhorrent and will at some time use it against her. One would hope that all this experience in the fish bowl has taught her something. Watching her testify before Congress in the Benghazi matter on whether the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and his aides was caused by a protest or a premeditated act of terrorism, she was about to punctuate her “what does it matter now” comment with some not so quaint expressions. She thought better of it.
Is this freedom of expression becoming? Not really. But it is a fact of the new culture.