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Guess What: Women Can Be Corrupt, Too

At a recent panel on women in politics, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made the observation that had there only been more women in power on Wall Street, we might have dodged the 2008 financial crisis:

It’s a funny thought experiment, reimagining Lehman Brothers as Lehman Sisters, and Twitter cottoned to it immediately:

Both Gillibrand’s longer statement and larger meaning aren’t really objectionable, though. All she’s really arguing for is the idea that even if women really are different from men — that, for instance, they in fact have greater emotional intelligence — that this diversity of skill is a value-add for government and society as a whole because women can potentially problem-solve in new ways men might not be able to. Gillbrand said, in part:

So it is the value that a woman brings to that table, that she has all these different life experiences, assets. And for women of color, it’s even more important, because she comes to the table with this host of experiences that are different, that will make not only the problem-solving better — because it will identify different problems — but then it will identify different solutions.

Some strains of feminism have long argued for a revaluing of the differences between men and women — not for, as many people mistakenly assume, pretending women and men are exactly the same, but for acknowledging that whatever their differences (cultural or biological), that both approaches and identities have value. What is tricky about Gillibrand’s statement, and fundamentally disingenuous, is the implication that if women could just problem solve together in positions of power, crisis would be averted because women can be counted on to do the right thing.

Writing at Splinter, Emma Roller (who also led some of the reimagined joke tweets) notes that it plays off this long-standing fallacious idea that women are somehow more ethical and better people, so in their hands, society only prospers. Roller writes:

The idea that all women are alchemical beings who, like Glinda the Good Witch, spread good governance wherever they go is facile, especially when considering the woman nominated to be the CIA’s next director. It’s equally facile to think that hiring more female bankers to run the nation’s most crooked financial institutions would have changed the tides of history. Women are greedy, too.

To be fair though, there is a body of research that shows that women are more inclined to behave ethically. Studies show they are less likely to take a bribe, or offer one. They are more likely t negotiate in good faith, meaning they don’t look for ways to fuck people over, or rationalize that it’s okay to fuck someone over if that person is too stupid to know better. They are more likely than men to even just recognize unethical practices as unethical. The more women participate in a government in any country, typically, the less corrupt it is.

But the important question here is why. Is it because they’re innately born more noble, more spiritual, more pure? Is it true, as I heard often growing up, that if you just put all the mothers in charge of the world, there’d be no war?

It’s important to understand where this idea of feminine virtue comes from, and critically, that it’s actually weirdly sexist. The idea that women are morally pure has long been used alongside their inherent inferiority to justify keeping them out of every public space or in any position of power other than in the home, tending to children. Their weaker status physically and intellectually has led to a kind of consolation-prize thinking in the way we view women: You aren’t as strong as men, or as smart, but you’re sweeter, and purer, which is why you’re perfectly suited to motherhood and the home. That is the highest honor there is, so in a way, we’re doing you a favor by keeping you out of ugly violent wars and the messy deal making of the political sphere.

It’s an idea at least as old as this country. In the 18th century, the concept of Republican motherhood took hold in the states alongside the American Revolution. Abigail Adams urged her husband John Adams to remember the ladies in drafting the constitution. He forgot, but what women did get was that consolation prize: they had a super important role in society, even if it meant zero pay, zero power, or zero direct influence on actual government or law. It told women that they were responsible for the moral character of their husband and children, and therefore, the country.

In other words, because women are so pure and great, they can actually make great citizens, even if they can’t participate in their country with the rights of actual citizens. It was a cool trick, and it fueled the notion that women should stay home and everything, only now, they could do it with dignity. By the 19th century, those separate spheres were still being maintained via the notion of the woman as purer and more virtuous, what historians refer to as the “cult of domesticity,” which positioned women as pious, domestic, submissive, and pure, and therefore logically and perfectly suited to the home and the rearing of children.

Those aspects of femininity have remained the cornerstone of the proper woman’s identity both privately and publicly, which has, in part, explained their participation in the fight for rights of women and children and the poor. Women are basically like Jesus — they are designed expressly, we think, to care for the vulnerable and less fortunate. So it only follows that when we elect women or give them the opportunity to become as corrupt as men, they politely demure.

Only it’s not really true. The same study that showed women are less likely to lie to say, a job recruit who doesn’t know the job will be eliminated in six months, found that when they gave those women a financial incentive to do so, they had no trouble being dishonest.

A study by Reuters of the research on women as less corrupt in governments across the globe found that the link between less corruption and greater female participation is not a result of innate female good. “It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed,” Stella Dawson writes. “Rather, the link appears to be that women are more likely to rise to positions of power in open and democratic political systems, and such societies are generally more intolerant of wrongdoing, including the abuse of power and siphoning off of public money.”

In other words, there’s a correlation between good women and democracy, but that doesn’t make it a causation. Dawson:

Helen Clark, who served nine years as prime minister of New Zealand, said there is no specific proof that women are any less corrupt than men. Instead, integrity may be more a function of opportunity and the way society operates than of gender, she said.

“There is a growing body of evidence that corruption operates in specific political and social networks to which women do not usually have access — particularly when women are new to positions of power,” said Clark, who is the first woman to head the U.N. Development Program.

What might be true then is that women simply haven’t had enough power for long enough for us to really understand their leadership style and whether they, too, might find themselves corrupted by power. This doesn’t mean that women will be just as corrupt as men as soon as they’ve had a shot at it. It just means we don’t know. But there’s reason to believe that power corrupts people no matter their gender, we just haven’t given enough groups enough power to realize this. When we keep marginalized groups down and out because we claim they simply aren’t as good at leading, we force them to insist they aren’t just as good, but arguably better. It’s a false narrative that writes people into a corner.

What’s more, equality isn’t about seeing women as the problem solvers of every societal ill. It’s about seeing them as equal, for better or for worse. If we’re willing to give men ample opportunities to fail without attributing it to their gender, we need to give women and minorities the same opportunities to succeed, but more importantly, fail. That will prove what many women have known for a long time: Anyone can be a shitty corrupt person — it has nothing to do with race or gender. But if you give one group all the power for most of time, you can easily convince yourself it does.