It was the first press conference of the summer. A month prior to this date, I started my journey as a congressional press intern, and every day following, I repeatedly pinched myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. I had fantasized about being part of the wheel of public service for as long as I could remember, so on that day as I prepared to greet leaders of the EPA, congress people from across the state and city council members on a blustery lake shore, my sentiments were equal parts thrill and terror.
I nervously applied my crimson lipstick, slipped on a black jersey dress, and did everything in my power to look like a member of the Kennedy family. I was working for a democrat, after all.
Being the lowest woman on the congressional totem pole, I had the privilege of memorizing the list of attendants and greeting them as they walked onto the pier. If people think that the expectations of Andie in The Devil Wears Prada are unrealistic, they’re wrong. Andie and I were just fighting for different things: she, the preservation of early 2000s cashmere blends, and I, the well-being of my boss’ district reputation. As the neighboring district’s Republican congressman approached the pier with his fleet of obscenely well-groomed staffers, I greeted him warmly. Party aside, he’s a genuinely personable guy who cares about the people he’s serving. I couldn’t fault him in the least.
Directly behind him stood a staffer who resembled a young Don Draper from Mad Men. He embodied a really charming mix of cleanly shaved suave and nerdy intellect, so when he moved around his boss to shake my hand, my stomach dropped. I fought an internal battle not to flirt; being a woman in a male dominated field was hard enough without batting your eyelashes. So I kept my eyes fixed and demeanor cool.
He asked me about my college career and I asked him about where he got his lapel pin, although I knew full well that they were the cheapest in the Capitol Rotunda gift shop. After a conversation about what I thought was about my plans for the internship, he handed me his card and said, “if your office ever has any questions… or you need some lunch,” as he chuckled coyly. I hadn’t even batted my eyelashes.
At first, I was flattered. I like the idea of his tortoise shell glasses, steel grey suit and blindingly white smile. I liked that he was forward and smelled annoyingly good; just enough stereotypical republican masculine musk and a touch of progressive mystery. I liked that after the Congresswoman arrived, he whispered in my ear, “the boss is here, you can relax now,” and flashed me his winning pearly whites.
That was until I realized that he not only looked like Don Draper, but was acting like him too. I was not there to get hit on; I was there to represent my boss in the way I knew how. I didn’t say anything to command his comments, I talked about my resume. My dress was tea length, for God’s sake.
It hit me–if I attempted to behave in the same way, I would be thought of as unprofessional, naïve and easy. All of a sudden, I found myself scowling at the realization of just how difficult it is for a woman to be taken seriously in politics. I blamed myself for the crimson lipstick and coiffed hair. It’s not that being hit on is inherently bad; it was the location in which it took place.
I was working overtime to prove my professional and intellectual worth, and the event made me feel less like someone who had been chosen to work in congress and more like a defeated little girl. And then, I thought about all the women before me who dealt with the same nonsense.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated and eventually sworn into the Supreme Court, one of the first things she was asked was what she would do about raising her kids. The status of Nancy Pelosi’s allegedly botox-ed face was more interesting to the press during her time as speaker of the house than her proposed policy. Hillary Clinton has been a first lady, a senator, secretary of state and presidential candidate, yet the secrets of her skin-care regimen sneak their way back into public conversation. Despite the pettiness, these women rose their way to the top, taking each demeaning business card with stride all the while planning to one day, be the boss of the men that thought their skills were limited to entertaining lunch. I am planning to do the same.