Donald Morrison: In praise of ambitious, assertive, 'nasty' women

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I met Kamala Harris a couple of years ago. Far from being "nasty," as our president alleged the other day, she was actually quite pleasant.

Nonetheless, she labors under a cloud of suspicion that trails nearly every successful woman: the curse of assertiveness.

My wife and I were at a fundraising reception in Florida for a local Democratic candidate. Harris was there to show her support. I knew barely anything about her then, except that she'd recently become the second Black female ever elected to the U.S. Senate. What I really didn't know is that she is a rock star.

Nearly everyone in the house was crowding around Harris — hugging her, taking selfies, seeking her autograph. I was lucky to score a few pleasant words and a flash of that killer smile.

The other candidate had almost no one to talk to, except me. Perhaps not surprisingly, he lost his election a few months later. Harris, with similar inevitability, has done better for herself lately.

I say "inevitability" because she reminds me of my mother, an elegant bulldozer who could make the most unlikely outcomes inevitable. Like Harris, my mom was a working girl — trained in accountancy — who took no guff, handled overbearing males with tact and firmness and raised four kids without breaking a sweat.

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She was no Phyllis Schlafly. That ultraconservative 1960s Republican idol was the subject of a recent TV series on FX-Hulu, "Mrs. America," starring Cate Blanchett as Schlafly. As fate would have it, my parents actually knew the old shrew (Schlafly, not Blanchett). We lived in the same Midwestern town. I went to elementary school with a few Schlafly kids, whom I liked.

My mother worried about them — and despised their mom. Like some people even today, Schlafly believed that women belong at home (though she herself was seldom there, having entrusted her kids to servants). Also, that women should not threaten men's egos or be too assertive.

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Kamala Harris, much like my mother, is the anti-Schlafly. Not because she makes men feel insecure — our president notwithstanding — but because she embodies one of the lesser-noticed social changes of recent years. Women are not just rising to the top, but they're also tentatively sort of beginning to be allowed to try using the same tools to get there as men do: candor, ambition, assertiveness.

It's a fine line to tread: playing hardball like the guys, while at the same time inspiring respect and collaboration from colleagues. Men have faced this workplace dilemma for years. But, they seem to suffer less than women if they veer too much toward the my-way-or-the-highway model.

Interestingly, politics seems to be one place where forceful women thrive. Roughly a quarter of the U.S. Congress and nearly 30 percent of state legislatures are female, the biggest shares ever. It's tough to get elected to office without being tough yourself, regardless of party. And when Joe Biden announced he would pick a female running mate, he faced an embarrassment of choice.

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So did the president when, after Biden's announcement, word got around that Trump might be seeking a preelection replacement, possibly a female, for the bland Mike Pence. One of several Republican options, South Dakota's energetic governor, Kristi Noem, spent a lot of time with Trump on Air Force One during his recent visit to her state's Mount Rushmore. So much time that she had to make a subsequent trip to Washington to reassure Pence that she wasn't trying to steal his job. It's possible he even believed her.

I've had a few female bosses and adored them all. This was before sharp elbows became acceptable office wear, and I valued their emphasis on inclusion, cooperation and empathy — traits female mangers have traditionally mastered. But, I also appreciated the occasional flash of steel, just to keep me on my toes.

Reminds me of my mother. I'm sorry she's not around to see so many other forceful females make it into in the corner office. I realize some men feel threatened by women like her, and like Harris. Not me. I grew up in awe and admiration of them. I married one, as did each of my sons — and, of course, my father.

Regardless of one's politics, managerial philosophy or thoughts on a particular candidate's qualifications for the vice presidency, perhaps there's one thing Americans this election year just maybe might possibly be allowed to agree on: It's time that strong women got their chance to be rock stars.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and advisory board member. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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