Calling Christine Quinn A Bully Isn’t Sexist – It’s Progress

Critics are wrong to call out the New York Times for writing a piece about the temper of the women aiming to become the city’s first female mayor, writes Peggy Drexler.

Seth Wenig/AP

Today’s New York Times profile of City Council Speaker and New York City mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn inspired some uproar. Critics viewed the article as sexist for portraying Quinn—who, if elected, would be the city’s first female mayor—as combative, volatile, hyper-demanding, and vitriolic. Sources, both male and female, gave quotes about her brashness, her temper and penchant for “old fashioned screaming,” and her love of the F-word. Quinn, the Times suggests, can be something of a bully.

But so what if she is? Is making such a point sexist? Not really.

For starters, Quinn certainly isn’t the first New York politician to earn the distinction, even from the Times, which has run stories about the respective hotheadedness of Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Anthony Weiner and other mayors and would-be mayors. Quinn, though, may be the first female New York City politician to have her temper put on display this way. This, I suspect, is what has people up in arms, even though Quinn herself seems to be perfectly fine with who she is, often using her personality as something of a platform. She even tells the Times, “I don’t think being pushy or bitchy or tough, or however you want to characterize it, is a bad thing. New Yorkers want somebody who’s going to get things done.”

As I’ve written before, being a woman in a position of power is a classic catch-22. In order for a woman to succeed, she has to be different, extraordinary, and not too emotional; that is, not “too feminine” or vulnerable. At the same time, she also needs to be relatable and likeable. In this way, we both celebrate and censure women who act “like men” in order to succeed professionally. Research proves that women are held to different professional standards, and that being a “tough boss” means something different for women than it does for men. Standards of behavior are uneven. Consider the recent Times profile of mayoral candidate Joe Lhota that similarly described his “unapologetically outsize personality,” calling him “larger than life, occasionally profane” and “uninhibited,” a hothead who once flipped off a reporter. No one called sexism on this piece.

Using words and anecdotes to paint a picture of a woman that may be less than flattering, yet true, isn’t sexist. It’s journalism. What would be sexist would be to expect that Quinn can’t be, or shouldn’t be, portrayed as a bully just because she’s a female. The fact is that female bullies do exist. In my work, I look at Queen Bees in the workplace, women who aim to undermine or push aside their female employees out of insecurity, competitiveness, or just some inherent unwillingness to help out other women.

Could Quinn be a Queen Bee? Possibly. She’s certainly tough and unforgiving, and at times shows an instinct to retaliate for real or perceived slights. But as the article points out, she also commands great loyalty among her staff, which includes many women. Another difference: While Queen Bees tend to bully covertly, employing techniques like gossip that are difficult to pinpoint, and are more likely to target females, Quinn issues her punishments in no uncertain terms and displays equal opportunity wrath.

If anything, Quinn’s gender may actually help her get away with some of her most egregious displays of fury. Because in many ways, she embodies characteristics not of the Queen Bee, but of the classic tyrannical male boss, those men who tend to bully with fear or indictable wrongs like workplace harassment. For example, Quinn likes to use the phrase, “I’m going to cut his balls off” when speaking of other lawmakers, male or female. Let’s consider whether a man who proudly admitted to a favorite phrase, “I’m going to cut her tits off,” would ever be permitted to apply this as evidence of a “colorful personality.”

In the end, the question shouldn’t be, “Is this piece sexist?” but whether the qualities that have made Quinn an effective, and thus far successful, leader will serve her going forward. When we study Queen Bees, we consider the fact that many women feel it necessary to call on certain tactics because this is “how things get done,” especially in industries historically populated by men. But as one Times commenter pointed out, rage is not a quality of leadership. Nor is intolerance of others and their ideas. The story paints Quinn as often dismissive of others, offended by criticism. It relates an incident in which Quinn reamed out a colleague who had not adequately praised her in a press release; later, she cut funding to programs in that colleague’s district. Though Quinn doesn’t quite admit to having performed such a blatant act of retaliation, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion.

But as far as whether calling her out on such an action is somehow sexist, I would say, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.