Breadwinners At Work: Rice, Power, Evers & Obama

BY Gwen Ifill  June 6, 2013 at 6:07 PM EDT

Myrlie Evers-Williams, Samantha Power, Michelle Obama and Susan Rice — unwavering women who all drew headlines this week.

Four women who dominated headlines this week could not be more different from one another. But each one, we are told, possesses sharp elbows.

President Obama used this basketball analogy to describe his newly-picked national security adviser Susan Rice. Actually, she did play basketball in college, but over time has acquired an even tougher reputation in foreign policy circles. You can imagine how well that goes over in that mostly-male world.

Samantha Power, who has been nominated to replace Rice at the U.N. Ambassador, is no shy flower either. Power won a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 32 for her 2003 book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” She’s the Obama campaign aide who was forced to resign in 2008 after she referred to Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” More important, she has made a career out of telling governments what they don’t want to hear.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, has spent the 50 years since her husband’s brutal murder redefining what it means to be a “civil rights widow.” Unlike Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, both now deceased, she remarried and launched her own, independent civil rights career when she was elected chairman of the NAACP.

And then there is Michelle Obama, whose carefully manicured image as a mom-in-chief and backyard gardener has always sought to mask the straightforward Chicago lawyer inside. She let loose a little this week when a heckler interrupted while she was speaking at a fundraiser, threatening to walk out if the woman did not stop.

Presidents must remain calm when they are harassed in public or pressed to comment on unpalatable issues. Spouses, whose lives are more aggressively roped off from prying eyes, always seem more likely to snap. Think Hillary Clinton — she of the “vast right wing conspiracy” — or Barbara Bush, who flatly told an interviewer recently that her son Jeb should not run for president.

It helps to take a deep breath when male public figures ranging from governors to hedge fund managers opine about how the world went askew once women started working and having babies — as if many of their mothers had not done the same.

For women in the public eye, the response must be measured. Each is intimately familiar with a world of shifting standards.

Having sharp elbows was never previously considered a negative quality for a national security adviser — unless her name was Condoleezza Rice. That’s got to get old.

Even though Myrlie Evers had already made a huge sacrifice for the civil rights movement, the NAACP was sharply divided when she made a leadership bid. She won election by only one vote.

And Power, even while standing in the Rose Garden this week, candidly described the opportunities and the limits of the United Nations post she will assume if confirmed by the Senate. “I have seen U.N. aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan,” she said. “Yet I’ve also see U.N. peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia.”

The time will come, I suppose, where we stop being surprised that women who have advanced degrees, raised children and have seen more war and grief than many of those who criticize them, succeed or fail on pure merit. But until then, I can only hope our daughters are watching.

Top photos by Pete Souza/White House, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images