A Legitimate Question November 15th, 2012
Only recently have I begun to lie about my age. I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m 35. But when I reach the end of a Boden product review entry and am asked to categorize my age I just can’t bring myself to check the 35-44 box. I always check the 25-34 box. Thirty-five is one thing. But I’m not yet ready to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m part of an age category that includes 44-year-olds. I’m pretty sure that it’s okay for me to avoid unpleasantries about my age, though, because I am not the House Minority Leader.
Yesterday, as she announced that she intends to keep her current post as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi grew offended when NBC reporter Luke Russert asked her about whether that decision damaged the Democratic party by preventing younger leadership from taking the reins. As soon as the question was out of his mouth the congregation of women standing behind Pelosi cried foul. ”Age discrimination!” they shouted. Russert (bully for him) held his ground, though, repeating the question and pressing for an answer. Pelosi then remarked. “Let’s for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it’s quite offensive. You don’t realize that, I guess.”
Now I know the old saying goes that a lady never reveals her age,* but I’m here to say that I think that women (at least women in public service) shouldn’t get a pass on this issue any more. Once upon a time there was a much thicker glass ceiling than there is today. Women didn’t serve in houses of Congress, on boards of directors, or on the United States Supreme Court. Slowly, though, we’ve chipped away at that glass and today women fill all sorts of leadership roles. This progress is both wonderful and warranted. But just as women’s merits should be held in as much esteem as men’s, so should our accountability be challenged as persistently.
By asserting that Russert’s question was offensive Pelosi tried to give herself a pass, to move on without answering it. It sort of pains me to say it, but no man would have done that. The ages of Reagan and McCain were widely discussed during their presidential administrations and campaigns. I wasn’t following politics very closely in the early ’80s, but I followed the 2008 presidential race energetically and never once did I see McCain avoid a question about his age. He consistently responded that he was in excellent physical and mental health, and that his age had provided him a full set of life experiences that would guide his leadership of the country. These are fair questions in the political arena, and if women want to go toe-to-toe with men in elected office we can’t ask for special treatment on certain topics. Part of shedding the sexist limitations of our nation’s past is also shedding some of the chivalrous protections that went along with it. Russert’s question was a legitimate one, even if women of Pelosi’s generation don’t like to think so.
In retrospect what surprised me most about Pelosi’s initial “How dare you!” response was that once she got past it and gave a real answer, it was a good one. She talked about not having entered Congress until much later in life than her male counterparts and her resulting awareness of the need to elect young women to the House. She talked about her efforts to shepherd younger representatives into positions of leadership. She made it clear that her maintenance of her current role is in no way detrimental to the grooming of younger leadership. (Whether or not you agree with that is a different question altogether. My point here is that she had an eloquent answer.)
In a way I think Mrs. Pelosi weakened herself with her knee-jerk rejection of Russert’s question. She should have embraced it. In doing so she would have conveyed confidence in her tenure and her experience. Her eventual answer about working to facilitate younger leadership would have rung true. And the headlines following the press conference would have focused more on her leadership and less on her age.
No elder statesman has ever apologized for his age. No elder stateswoman should either.
*To this day the age of cosmetics legend Mary Kay Ash is only an estimate.