Ballad Of The Female "Self Promoter"

There's a part in Tiny Furniture where one confused young daughter of success tells another, "Our moms are assholes. [They're] too successful not to be." I thought of that while reading a recent profile of new New York City schools chancellor Cathie Black, who until recently was the chairwoman of Hearst magazines. Specifically this part:

Her aphorism-stuffed how-to-get-ahead-in-business memoir, Basic Black, came out in 2007, and Hearst threw a series of parties to help promote the book, rankling some staffers who thought Black was hogging the spotlight.... She was less of a superstar manager, in this view, than a gifted saleswoman of magazine ads-and herself.

...Colleagues, however, sometimes wondered whether Black's energies were devoted to promoting her magazines or herself. "She would be in her office all day, and much of her time was spent writing notes: ‘Dear Dr. Kissinger, what a pleasure it was to sit next to you at dinner last night,' " remembers an advertising associate. "Tons of that stuff; that's what she does. Her assistant would say, ‘Cathie's going to a party, and she wants me to write up a history of every single person who's going to be there.' "

It's not that there aren't legitimate doubts about Black's appointment to oversee New York City's schools — her narrowly-focused background; the opacity of her positions, if there are any; the pushing of a privatized agenda in the public schools. But is being a "self-promoter" really among the damning qualities? I wasn't convinced by Gloria Steinem's argument that Black was facing sexism when people found her qualifications lacking, but I would believe that a woman's "self promotion" is a man's "networking" or "business savvy."

Was there special vitriol in a recent profile of another New York City public appointment, that of 27-year-old Rachel Sterne, the city's first-ever chief digital officer? It boldly declared, "Indeed, Sterneʼs greatest accomplishment may be that she has risen as high and as rapidly as she has without demonstrating any real accomplishments." That rise, the profile suggested, was due more to earning the confidence of high-profile tech people than anything else — itself, I would argue, a qualification for connecting city government, technologists, and the general population.

Arianna Huffington, too, has been called a self-promoter, and yet it is in part her social skills and marketing genius (along with some clever SEO and the insane hard work of the rank-and-file staff) that helped her engineer, yesterday, a $315 million deal to sell the Huffington Post to AOL, a deal hatched while schmoozing at a conference and announced while schmoozing at the Super Bowl. Now, she's being hailed even by her critics as "a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary."

The line between "self-promotion" and promotion of a cause or brand is easily blurred — it was Huffington herself that was trumpeted as the greatest benefit to AOL for the money (though the growth didn't hurt), and Black too for the city and Mayor Bloomberg, if less convincingly. As cringe-inducing as the phrase "personal brand" is and should be, it's undeniable that it has played a major part in all of these women's successes.

Is it possible to be successful without making yourself generally insufferable, or maybe loathed by a few? Well, supporting your peers and mentoring the next generation, including other women, helps, as does having something tangible to contribute to the world beyond yourself. But even when you've been widely acknowledged as doing those things, as say, Jessica Valenti has, success will always bring someone accusing you of being in it for yourself, as seen in this piece of unvarnished, unearned nastiness. ("She is like every other professional feminist, dedicated to promoting herself.") It's a shame that rising through mainstream channels or getting paid are things that induce knee-jerk sniping from other women, notwithstanding actual substantive criticism.

In other words, some people who "self-promote" are talentless assholes, but it one doesn't necessarily follow the other. And if only assholes self-promote — well, you know where that leaves us.

The Very Public Schooling Of Cathie Black [NYMag]
Related: SEO Speedwagon [Slate]
The Rachel Sterne Papers [Brandweek]

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