We were having coffee, two women bursting with strong opinions and an ambition for change. As we professed our dreams to be leaders of political progress and lasting reform, we realized that we had a problem. She leaned over and confided, “I’m such a softie,” a sentiment that I returned amid nervous giggles. We openly confessed how, sometimes, we were so frustrated with the world that we’d end up in tears — tears that needed to be held back if we were ever to succeed as women in politics, or any other high-intensity career. Madeleine Albright didn’t cry. RBG didn’t cry. Nancy Pelosi didn’t cry. (At least, not visibly.) But we sure do.
In the current political climate, many of us lament the lack of empathy in politics, where politicians put partisan ties before common-good compromises. Maybe if we shed our conception that politics is not a place for emotions, not a place for moving stories, then we would elect leaders that are committed to serving the public good and are impassioned by rectifying injustices, rather than ones that shelter themselves under the guise of pragmatism.
This isn’t a partisan issue. More often than not, it is a gendered issue. We constantly juxtapose the emotional and the rational, arguing that it is impossible to have both at the same time. Most women have heard men throw around the classic, “She’s too emotional” or, “She just can’t handle it.” It’s frustrating to watch female politicians being criticized for their lack of emotion on Monday and then ridiculed for their exhibitions of emotion on Friday. When President Barack Obama cried during his presidency, the country wept with him. When Mitt Romney cried multiple times on the campaign trail, the chambers of criticism grew silent. However, when Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 ran for president in 2008, she was brutally criticized for shedding a single tear after describing her experience as a woman in politics. For women, emotions become an additional liability to their constantly questioned credibility and competence. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of respondents answered that “showing emotion hurts women in politics” compared to only 39 percent who say the same about men. While watching two civil rights attorneys speak at Yale earlier this semester, a member of the audience asked, “How do you handle the anger that you feel at constant injustices?” They replied by saying that their anger motivated them to wake up each morning. If they completely divorced their emotions from the work they did, rather than feeling indignant to the injustices of the world, what would motivate them? Empathy combats apathy, the greatest inhibitor to change and justice.
Instead of viewing emotions as cumbersome at best and a weakness at worst, we should mold it into a strength. Emotions can serve as a way to inspire change. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, gun law reforms were immediately passed amid grief — not in spite of it, but rather, because of it.
As someone who has spent most of her academic career studying human rights, I was incredibly excited when I learned that one of my syllabi included Samantha Power’s ’92 book “‘A Problem from Hell’: American and the Age of Genocide.” Frankly, I teared up while reading it. While debating about it in class, passion ran like a current through my words. Not only is Power an incredible scholar, but she also eloquently puts this phenomenon of emotions into words: “A plane gets shot out of the sky … and I get choked up about it. My thought bubble is ‘ugh don’t do that, you’re the only woman on the Security Council, the one thing you can’t do is cry.’ But then part of me is like ‘why is nobody else crying?’”
Politics, policymaking and diplomacy are ultimately careers about serving people, so why should we shed something that makes us so characteristically human, claiming that doing so will make us more “successful” at our jobs? I wouldn’t want to elect someone so removed from their feelings that catastrophes and casualties would fail to move them — fail to push them toward action or challenge the status quo. Of course, we want leaders who also keep the big picture in mind and prioritize what to act on, but reason should not come at the cost of shedding emotion entirely.
I have emotions. And chances are, you do, too. But don’t let these stop you from pursuing high-profile careers. I can be sad, angry and happy while also being logical, methodical and intuitive. There is strength in balance.
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .