Last week was a historic one for women. Eighteen women won or reclaimed Senate seats, bringing the number of women in that body to 20. Nearly 80 women now occupy the House. New Hampshire became the first state to elect a female governor and an all-women congressional delegation.
But wait: What's that sound of tires screeching to a halt? What's that feeling of being yanked aside by the elbow and told, "Not so fast, missy."
It's that timeless behemoth known as the double standard, that ever-present reminder that no matter how many elected offices women hold or Cabinet positions they fill, no matter how many Fortune 500 companies they run, there's no amount of success that can't be undone by the ultimate mistake: a failure to comply with the strict set of culturally sanctioned standards of attractiveness. Anything less is tantamount to "letting yourself go," which in turn is tantamount to saying you don't want the job.
Last week, amid the celebration of all those female victories, that double standard appointed a new chief representative — outrageously for her and sadly for the rest of us: Holly Petraeus.
The 57-year-old wife of 60-year-old former CIA Director David H. Petraeus, who resigned Friday after confessing to an affair with his 40-year-old, low-body-fat biographer, has now joined the ranks of high-profile wronged women: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jenny Sanford (former wife of South Carolina governor and noted Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford) and Huma Abedin (wife of New York representative and raunchy tweeter Anthony Weiner) among them.
Some of the media have shown the requisite respect, emphasizing Holly Petraeus' military pedigree, her education, her lobbying on behalf of soldiers' families and her position in the Obama administration. But also on display are the equally requisite "in happier times" photos. And unlike the willowy Sanford, the exotic Abedin or the formidable, polished Clinton, Petraeus has been revealed to be an utterly ordinary looking middle-aged woman.
Showing no signs of slavery to high fashion, power yoga, Botox or hair dye, she can be seen as an unlikely partner for a staggeringly accomplished man famous for his obsession with physical fitness. The chattersphere has been particularly harsh, invoking the word "granny" and suggesting that the general can't be blamed for his actions. "I'd have done the same thing," said a commenter on CNN's website. A (female) reader of the Huffington Post offered that Holly Petraeus' "entire demeanor, her hair, no makeup, her frumpy clothes, seem to scream to her husband and others ... I don't care!"
For better or worse, most women in high places know that meeting a physical standard is part of the deal. Established political figures such as Nancy Pelosi,
Michele Bachmann, Condoleezza Rice, Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe certainly don't trade on their glamour, but they're complicit with the demand that they look the part. And if that means a lot of coiffing, dieting or even nipping and tucking that their male counterparts can skip, well, it's not perceived as an injustice as much as the cost of doing business.
That's why the spotlight into which Holly Petraeus has been thrown casts such a haunting glow. As much as the main narrative of this scandal belongs to her husband and his mistress, her story contains an even more cautionary tale. If it's no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman, it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.
It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that the general would have been able control himself if only his wife agreed to a makeover. After all, assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on; newlyweds get cheated on; all kinds of women — and men — are betrayed by all kinds of spouses. But to see this particular wife betrayed not just by her husband but by hoary stereotype and default cattiness is to be reminded just how far we are from true gender equality.
The era of old, crotchety white male dominance may be coming to an end. But it won't matter much until the women that replace them are allowed to get old and crotchety too. Judging by the amount of Botox on the Hill, that's not happening any time soon.