We Americans can't help getting a jolt of tabloidy satisfaction every time the wealthy and well-connected French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn makes another humiliating court appearance in conjunction with charges that he tried to rape a New York City hotel housekeeper. After all, we love nothing better than seeing the powerful and formerly smug dragged across the front pages in ignominy. Especially when he has to make his way through representatives of a housekeepers' union shouting, "Shame on you!" in solidarity with the plaintiff, a 32-year-old single mother. Even the French admit that this particular clash of gender and class would probably never have happened in France.
But before we ask the French to thank us for educating them on how to treat women, we might want to ask ourselves, Do American women really have it all that much better in general? Because it's very possible that women on this side of the Atlantic face just as much sexism, but without the generous government family benefits.
Sure, we get a lot of mileage out of publically humiliating (and occasionally indicting) famous men who've committed sexual transgressions, both legal and illegal. But in the U.S., the gender war is often more show than substance. It's a spectator sport in which we designate national villains, victims, good wives and so-called sluts. And this game has begun anew now that Congressman Anthony Weiner has admitted to sending lewd pictures and texts to young women.
Condemning Weiner and Strauss-Kahn (and former Senator John Edwards) sure does make us feel as if women get a better deal in the U.S. than in France. The problem is that the numbers show that all the fuss over philandering men doesn't do most American women any good at all. Certainly not when it comes to wage equality. As it turns out, the gender gap in median pay for full-time work is slightly worse in the U.S. than it is in France, according to a 2010 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
And it's pretty certain that all the salacious details emerging from Weiner's Twitter account won't help the millions of American women who don't have even one paid sick day to take care of a child or themselves. For many of the women who clean hotels and serve food, taking a day off means losing a big chunk of a week's pay. That's something that French women would surely not tolerate. (In the U.S., only 41% of low-wage service-industry jobs, which are dominated by women, allow paid sick days.) And how about maternity leave? America is one of only two industrialized nations, along with Australia, that do not guarantee paid maternity leave, and only 11% of U.S. civilian workers get paid family leave.
Will hotel maids be any more secure in the long run thanks to the attention brought to their occupational risks by the Strauss-Kahn case? In a month or two, when the spotlight moves elsewhere, it's unlikely that they will feel less fearful that they'll either lose their jobs or their reputations or be deported if they complain about a customer. After all, even women at elite institutions can't be too optimistic that their allegations of harassment will be taken seriously. This spring, Yale University was embroiled in a federal investigation on charges that it ignored complaints by women about a number of egregious incidents, including one in which frat guys stood outside a freshman dorm shouting, "No means yes, yes means anal," and another in which men rated women on the basis of how many drinks they'd have to consume before having sex with them.
So, yes, Americans will lambast anyone from the President to Weiner if we suspect they've violated our code of sexual conduct. But we won't pay a whole lot of attention to more tedious but important issues like that ongoing legal action against Walmart by female employees who are suing the retailer for back pay in the largest private gender-bias case in U.S. history.
And as it turns out, being pilloried as a harasser or cheater isn't a career ender for many men. Bill Clinton was savaged over his affair with an intern. Today he's respected as our most popular living ex-President. And the young intern Monica Lewinsky, who made the mistake of succumbing to the sexual demands of the most powerful man in the world? She still hasn't recovered. But that's not terribly surprising in a country where Tucker Max's violently misogynistic I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell enjoyed 150 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Max's favorite label, "slut," seems to stick to women more than men. Just ask former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was pushed out of office for hiring a prostitute in 2008. He now has his own TV show. So even if Weiner resigns in shame over his admission of "slutty" behavior, don't expect him to go away for good.
And surely we'll be seeing the disgraced ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a movie premiere in a few years with a starlet on his arm. Meanwhile, his housekeeper-mistress who has been savaged by blogs, Glenn Beck and at least one female talk-show host as ugly, fat and opportunistic might have a tougher time recovering. Let's see how she picks up her life. And as for her fellow housekeepers and single moms? Well, they might be better off moving to France if they want affordable day care or any of those amenities that American politicians are too distracted by all that sexting to deal with.