Samantha Power is many things: Current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Former Harvard professor. Pulitzer prize winner. And, as a particularly galling incident involving a French ambassador makes clear, reported in this week's profile by The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, she is also someone who, despite all of those impressive accomplishments, is still expected to take time out of her busy schedule to bow to outdated gender norms.
Here is what happened, according to Osnos' story: Gérard Araud, the current French Ambassador to the US and at the time French ambassador to the UN, sent Power a text one day while they were on the Security Councilthat read, "On behalf of the French delegation, I want to tell you, you are very beautiful." The source for this story is Araud himself.
That's right: Araud, in his capacity as diplomatic representative of France, not only sent an obnoxious text to the US Ambassador to the United Nations, while they were in the Security Council, but later bragged about it to the New Yorker, saying that "As a Frenchman, I'm not condemned to be politically correct."
Araud also told Osnos that he'd expected Power to be an "NGO girl" before he met her, but was pleasantly surprised by her ability when they worked together — a remark that's a contender for the back-handed compliment hall of fame.
That incident is telling about the degree to which international diplomacy remains a boys club, even if some women reach its highest levels.
But Power's response to Araud is more telling still: she played the role that he demanded, sending a reply text that said "This is one of the nicest SMSs I have ever received." Her strategy, apparently, was effective: Osnos reports that Araud became "one of Power's closest collaborators."
I'm not criticizing Power's decision to send that response — it worked, and she had a job to do. But it is frustrating to consider that the US ambassador to the UN — the representative of the world's most powerful country to the world's most important institution — was put in a position of having to simper about compliments to her appearance in order to not jeopardize a working relationship with a US ally.
Compliments can be lovely, but receiving that sort of remark from a professional colleague who isn't a friend places women in a deeply annoying position: either respond positively and risk being seen as unprofessional and flirtatious, or respond negatively and risk being seen as rude. I'd wager that that's a tradeoff that every working woman in America has had to make — albeit probably not in response to the French Ambassador.
Likewise, Power seemed to be careful not to appear too ambitious when speaking to Osnos. She took pains to paint her career as the result of impulse and emotion, rather than ambition and dedication. "My career is not well thought out," she told him. "Every choice has been instinctive and, quite literally, impulsive in many ways."
That description is totally at odds with the actual facts of Power's career: this is a woman who, after writing a paper about genocide in her second year of law school, sent it to Marty Peretz, then the editor of the New Republic, and to Anthony Lewis, then a columnist for the New York Times. And who then parlayed that very paper into a book, the book into a Pulitzer Prize, the Pulitzer into a Harvard professorship, and then her role at Harvard into positions in Barack Obama's first presidential campaign and then his administration. (Some instincts! Some impulses!)
But unfortunately it's not at odds with the truth that ambitious women are often seen as demanding, unpleasant, or unreasonable. That is a tightrope that our society expects all successful women to walk, but it's still frustrating to be reminded that there is no position senior enough to escape the contradictionsof being a successful woman in America. Be high-achieving, but not ambitious. Be attractive, but don't appear to prioritize your appearance over other things. Sit at the table with powerful men, and if they don't know how to handle that, gracefully overlook their misbehavior.
We have progressed far enough to appoint a woman as ambassador to the UN, but not so far that she won't have to navigate those oppressive gender expectations once she gets there.
I have met Samantha Power, and am familiar with her work. I can say firsthand that her looks are the least remarkable thing about her. And I don't always agree with her, but her ambition is inspiring, and her accomplishments are impressive. I wish we lived in a society that let her own that without judgment. Apparently we don't.