Two months ago, I left the White House after six years of working for President Barack Obama. As anyone who’s had the privilege of serving a sitting president can tell you, the job is both tremendously rewarding and incalculably demanding. No advanced degree or job experience truly prepares you for the tidal wave of responsibility and the sheer gravity of history that beckons each day. The Arab Spring. Newtown. Hurricane Sandy. The Affordable Care Act. It is one of those jobs that never really leaves you.
Until it’s time to leave.
Working at the White House naturally invites interest from the media, and like many of my former colleagues, I fielded plenty of requests for interviews. But I’ve always been mindful of how easy it is to be mischaracterized or misquoted, something that has the frightening potential to interfere with the job. That’s why I declined most of these requests. I exercised similar caution when announcing my next move. There’s a favorite saying in Washington: You only get one chance to leave the White House.
So when the women’s magazine Marie Claire offered me a post as contributing editor, the opportunity felt perfectly timed. After all these decades in the trenches, working women like me are finally having our moment. We are the gender that launched a thousand recent magazine covers, from the “Lean In” movement to “the Confidence Gap,” egg-freezing to mandatory coverage of contraception. Every week, it seems, a new, fresh take on what keeps working women from getting their due and having it all captures the zeitgeist. As someone who’s always believed in the power of mentorship, that it was my duty to pay it forward to other, younger women at the White House, the prospect of helping to shape these incredibly important and germane conversations resonated with me.
And yet I’ve been startled by some of the critical reactions to my announcement. I’m always gobsmacked when someone takes a swipe at women’s magazines for their supposedly frothy content, as Politico did this month in The Princess Effect, which assailed the genre as a place where “ideas pale in importance to the superficial qualities valued in [Betty] Friedan’s time — bodies, clothes, houses, makeup.”
Such dated arguments assume that women are incapable of being both informed and fashionable, that to be a woman of substance and gravitas, to be taken seriously by her peers, she must subordinate her appearance and interests outside the office. Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of the Economist and the second season of The Mindy Project downloaded on her iPad? Sorry, but modern women see no contradiction there.
Women’s magazines have long been bastions for sharp, meaty stories about issues that, let’s face it, might otherwise go unreported in mainstream media, such as Marie Claire’s early piece about pervasive sexual assault on college campuses and Redbook’s moving series on infertility. As for workplace matters, women’s magazines were at the forefront of coverage concerning both women who put off marriage to pursue their careers and breadwinner wives. And they were the first to dispense with the requisite work-life balance questions men invariably ask powerful women in favor of far more revealing inquiries about how they got to the top and what the view was like once ensconced there.
The reason you don’t hear much about these pieces is because “serious” publications don’t pay them much mind, and why should they when pieces like the one in Politico peddle antiquated beliefs that if a woman is photographed wearing heels, or if her profile is nestled between a fashion spread and a relationship essay, it is neither thoughtful nor sophisticated? This though men’s magazines don’t face any of the same scrutiny when they publish supposedly hard-hitting pieces adjacent to features on golf swings, pinstripes and bikini babes.
Thankfully, a new generation of young, ambitious women refuses to be hampered by the apparent double standard and rejects the idea that their interest in fashion, beauty and fitness somehow connotes anything beyond just that. I’m thrilled to align myself with a magazine that speaks directly to these women, whether it’s about access to abortion or fall trends. Because if we really want to talk honestly about “having it all,” we need to start by according a woman’s many interests outside the office with the same deference we do a man’s.