Tory Burch should run.
For higher office. I’m serious.
Settling into an orchestra seat at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on Tuesday morning for a day-long summit organized by the Tory Burch Foundation, in which a fascinating array of politicians, activists, athletes, and icons would address the subject of “ambition,” the thought did occur that Burch might have another career ahead of her besides fashion and philanthropy. Taking the stage with U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, she stealthily asked them the first question that she often gets herself when she is interviewed.
“Tell me about what you’re wearing,” Burch said.
The congressmen positively tittered. For the record, Burch was wearing a printed dress. The men were in suits and ties.
“Actually, what I meant to say,” Burch continued, “is it possible to balance being a mom with a career?”
Turning the tables on Kennedy and McCarthy certainly elicited laughs from an audience of more than 900 people who attended The Embrace Ambition Summit, but the responses of the politicians – who profess to be pals off the floor – remained as elliptical and elusive of agreement as ever. They talked about how things should be, and how frustrated they are that common ground remains hard to find in the world of politics. McCarthy quoted Winston Churchill (most likely incorrectly) as saying, “You can always count on Americans to get it right after they’ve exhausted every other option.”
“Well, we’re almost there,” Burch shot back. “I have to say I’m personally exhausted and I’m ready for some sleep.”
She then turned to the matter of how women are perceived in politics, citing studies that showed people see ambitious men and ambitious women differently. Ambitious men are seen as assertive and strong. Ambitious women are seen as uncaring and less trustworthy. Burch asked if it would more be difficult for women to be elected given this bias. And McCarthy kind of stepped in it. He acknowledged female candidates are more often attacked, but argued it was not by men, but by women. Burch begged to differ.
“I do think women are attacked by women for sure, but I really do think they are attacked by men,” she said.
The conversation improved from there, and both Kennedy and McCarthy expressed frustrations with the biases that women face. Burch cleverly wrapped up on a personal note, telling the audience a personal aside. She had earlier learned that the two men like to go to the gym together. (McCarthy called himself the before to Kennedy’s after.)
“You work out together,” Burch said. “That means you can bring the country together. That’s my hope.”
In conversations throughout the day, certain themes arose again and again – gender biases that are ingrained in society, the virtues of ambition when the aim is to lift up others versus oneself (a hotly debated topic), and how quickly perceptions have changed of behavior once seen as socially acceptable that really wasn’t, or isn’t today.
The journalist and documentarian Perri Peltz said if you had asked her five years ago if she had been concerned about her male colleagues’ behavior, “I would have said no. For me, it was just part of the DNA. It was normalized.”
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, spoke of the same concerns she faced as a young author when people questioned how she managed to write while keeping up housework. “If you want to be a woman writer,” she said, “develop a healthy relationship with dust bunnies.”
And in one of the funniest moments, the meticulously accurate Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender woman to win a state legislature race when she was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November, responded to a headline in The New York Times accompanying a Frank Bruni opinion column that complimented her quotidian-over-identity-politic priorities as a candidate (“Danica Roem Is Really, Really Boring”) with this:
“I don’t know at what point a transgender, metalhead, yogini, stepmom, journalist, vegetarian became boring in American culture,” she said, before veering into dull commentary about traffic lights and healthcare. Love her.
But if you wanted a perfect response to the undeniably sexist questions that successfully ambitious women routinely face, you could not have found a better advocate than ski racer Lindsey Vonn, who, at age 33, often finds herself treated as if, “I’m the grandma on tour.”
Her attitude is this:
“It doesn't bother me to be called the oldest, because that means I did it longer than anybody else.”