I’m no John Boehner fan. And I’m even less of a Mitch McConnell fan. But as a person who chokes up at a movie or book or a news story most days and full-on cried during Toy Story 3, as tough as it is for me to admit it, I feel for both of them right now. Crying politicians are nothing new. Remember Democratic Presidential candidate Ed Muskie, who lost the 1972 nomination after he teared up during a press conference in New Hampshire while defending his wife? And Hillary Clinton, who also famously choked up, in 2008, also while campaigning for President in the New Hampshire primary?
I understand the modern default assumption that a politician is using emotional displays cynically. (See Clinton, Bill.) And I understand why women, especially women who politically oppose the un-compassionate conservatives Boehner and McConnell, are tempted to revile them for tearing up, which Senator McConnell did this week delivering a farewell speech to his friend Judd Gregg (of New Hampshire -- again New Hampshire!) while Boehner apparently gets weepy on a daily basis. But I’m made uncomfortable that these apparently authentic emotional displays by powerful men are fair game for ridicule.
Men completely controlled the workplace when women first went into the labor force in significant numbers during the late 60s and 70s, so we females believed that to be successful we had to “man up,” and emulate their emotional restraint. For forty years women have had to adhere to a poker-faced workplace persona that denies essential aspects or our emotional wiring. Nancy Pelosi said of Boehner in The New York Times magazine, “You know what? He is known to cry. He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills. If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics – no – I don’t cry." But a hard outer shell of pseudo-invulnerability comes at a cost to both genders.
Women cry, on average, four times as often as men – according to neurologist William Frey, an average of 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men. And this isn't just a function of cultural training – women generate far more prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production that also controls the neurotransmitter receptors in our tear glands, and women’s tear ducts are anatomically different from male tear ducts, resulting in a larger volume of tears. In a 2009 survey I conducted with J. Walter Thompson probing the nature of emotion in the workplace I discovered that *both* women and men divide themselves into two large camps: those 25% who cry regularly and those 75% who tend not to cry frequently. McConnell, Boehner and I are part of the 25% of us who are members of the “crying tribe.” We also discovered in our survey that when we do tear up on the job, women can be our own worst enemies – a plurality of women consider people who cry at work "unstable," whereas roughly that same fraction of men see tears on the job as only "slightly unprofessional." In other words, women see tears at work as some kind of moral/psychological failure, but men don’t.
“We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she [Nancy Pelosi], or any female lawmaker, broke into loud nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview,” Gail Collins wrote in her December 16th New York Times Op-Ed column about Boehner. But instead of decrying (no pun intended) the operative gender double standard, and suggesting that the no-crying rule be enforced equally for male and female Speakers of the House, I think it would be much better to allow McConnell’s or Boehner's tearfulness to abolish the no-cry rule for *both* genders. Women (and men) who are belittling Boehner and McConnell for getting emotional are not helping humanity’s larger cause – that all people should feel comfortable being as authentically themselves as possible. We can continue to despise their politics and cynical maneuvers but still grant them their humanity.