How Monica Goodling played the gender card.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 25 2007 2:37 PM

The Goodling Girl

How Monica Goodling played the gender card and won.

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Ever since Goodling surfaced in the middle of the e-mail traffic about the U.S. attorneys purge, her gender has been crucial to the role she's played in the tale. She's the only one who cried to other DoJ officials. She's the only one who took the Fifth. This woman who was single-handedly firing interns and hiring immigration judges and stonewalling new applicants, brilliantly cast herself this week in the earnest helpmeet role. And the reason this has worked so well for her is that it's hard to call attention to that without getting tied up in knots. The first thing we noticed on Thursday (didn't everybody?) was Goodling's hair—great highlights! But to even say that is to trivialize her, right? And for us to say it, as women, is to launch a catfight. It's to separate her from the big boys, by calling her a girl.

But we're prepared to wade into the girl stuff because, to be lawyerly for a minute, it was Goodling who first put it into evidence. And because it's useful to observe that her girl performance was a kind of generational throwback. Other famous-for-being-infamous Washington women—the other Monica, Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton—never deliberately savaged their own professional importance with such remarkable professionalism. Their gender mattered, but they all fought to be taken more seriously in spite of it, while Goodling seems to be doing her utmost to be taken less so.

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For a performance like this, the most apt role model we can think of is Fawn Hall, Oliver North's former secretary and the heart of the Iran-Contra affair. Hall also was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony to Congress in 1989. She confessed to shredding documents and even to hiding some inside her skirt so she could smuggle them out of the building. But she told Congress, "Sometimes you have to go above the law." Eventually, though reluctantly, she helped convict North, by turning government witness.

Maybe Goodling studied Hall's experience for pointers. Saying that you've crossed the line, as this week's Girl Secretary did, sounds much nicer than claiming to be above it. None of her former colleagues are facing time because of anything she has said. And Hall was named a Playboy "Sex Star" in 1987, a trap into which Goodling, with her ardent faith, presumably won't fall. But what's distressing, as a matter of gender politics, is that when Hall said, "I did not know many of the details relevant to the Iran and Contra activities," her claim was plausible precisely because she really was a secretary and thus not in on North's meetings. When Goodling says she doesn't know what Sampson and Karl Rove were up to because she was busy finding sports tickets for her co-workers, she's playing down power she indisputably had, power her sisters and aunts have fought for. That the line still works for her is testament that we haven't come as long a way as we'd hoped, baby.

What will happen to Goodling? She'll lay low for a while. She'll leave Washington, maybe. And then she'll re-emerge in another position of power; power that she will cast as reflected glow from greater men. Because to help yourself by playing helpless is the stuff of real smarts and savvy. Goodling's day in the spotlight wasn't exactly a good day for feminism. But in the end, maybe she's bamboozled us, too, because if we ever have to testify before Congress, hand us the pigtails and lollipop.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.