In Defense of Elizabeth Lambert

Everybody loves a catfight. So it was no surprise that the recent video of a University of New Mexico soccer player yanking a rival to the ground by her ponytail went viral. I, for one, watched Elizabeth Lambert, 20, throwing punches and pulling hair several times.

What was surprising was that the incident sparked a sanctimonious debate on women and sportsmanship. What Lambert did was wrong. Her team suspended her—indefinitely. Lambert quickly apologized to practically everyone in New Mexico—and last week told The New York Times: "I have so much regret. I can't believe I did that." But by then my media colleagues had already worked themselves into a frenzy. The Today show, among others, tsk-tsked at Lambert's shameful behavior. In the U.K., where they know something about red cards, SkyTV called her the "dirtiest ever" female soccer player. (Article continued below…)

If it had been two men in a Division 1 college game, I doubt we would have gotten so exercised. When Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punched an opposing player in the face earlier this season, his video also made the rounds. But while Blount was initially suspended for the season, he has already been reinstated. Even Michael Vick is playing football again—and he killed puppies!

The difference is that we expect bad behavior from men—on the field and off. (In some ways, men justify our low opinion of them: they are 10 times more likely to murder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.) But we expect better from women. We didn't fight this hard to be involved in organized sports just so we could act like a bunch of dumb jocks, right? We want women to be honest, compassionate, and nice—you know, like our moms.

So what's the harm in expecting the fairer sex to play fairer? It's what George W. Bush might call the soft bigotry of high expectations. If we insist on holding women and girls to higher standards than men, we set them up to disappoint us. It makes me worry about my 9-year-old daughter, and not because I hope she will someday pull hair with the best of them. I think she is sometimes held to stricter behavior standards than her boys-will-be-boys classmates. Those higher expectations follow us onto the job, where women are allegedly not only better behaved and more honest but cheaper—you only have to pay us 80 cents on the dollar! So why aren't we represented at the highest levels of business? One problem is that women aren't supposed to be aggressive or self-promoting—that's nasty male behavior—even though it's often rewarded. And yet if professional women are too nice and cuddly, they don't seem decisive or tough enough to be leaders. "The 'women are wonderful' effect does have a terrible downside," says Alice H. Eagly, a psychology professor and coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. "If you're too nice, you're seen as not really appropriate for high-level positions."

Our more virtuous status certainly hasn't been translated into success in politics. Women make up only 17 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate; the White House has remained out of reach. When it comes to being honest, intelligent, and hardworking—traits voters value in elected officials—the public rates women as superior to men, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center. Yet only 6 percent of those queried say women make better political leaders.

We may have only ourselves to blame for our supposed moral superiority. During the 19th century, American women were judged by themselves (and their husbands) largely by four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Called the Cult of True Womanhood, the code held that a woman's "proper sphere" was the home. But suffragists themselves later used women's supposed piety and purity to bolster their case for voting rights, reasoning that women would make morally superior choices. Even today some advocates argue that companies should promote women because they will help make organizations more ethical, transparent, and family friendly.

I'd like to think that when women are finally sufficiently represented in the executive suite and on the field, we will stop viewing them as proxies for their entire gender—superior or not. What I hope for my daughter, and for Elizabeth Lambert, is that we will be able to see them as individuals, flaws and all.