The Three Kinds of Women, According to Marion Barry

The former D.C. mayor says what he’s done for women’s rights is “incredible” and “trailblazing.” Don’t believe it.

Marion Barry attends the 55th Anniversary of Ben's Chili Bowl on August 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
June 26, 2014, 11:01 a.m.

“We had made a good team busi­ness-wise, but we were nev­er able to sep­ar­ate our work from our per­son­al life,” Mari­on Barry wrote of his mar­riage to the late Mary Tread­well in his new book. “You can’t have two people of equal power in a re­la­tion­ship, you simply can’t.”

Writ­ten with best-selling au­thor Omar Tyree, May­or for Life: The In­cred­ible Story of Mari­on Barry, Jr., tells the story of Barry’s life as he sees it. In do­ing so, Barry un­wit­tingly casts a spot­light on the dis­turb­ing gender dy­nam­ics of his in­ter­per­son­al re­la­tion­ships, even as he seeks to por­tray any at­ten­tion to his per­son­al life as the me­dia fo­cus­ing need­lessly on scan­dal.

In one in­stance, he’s miffed when his late wife Ef­fi Slaughter Barry re­fuses to vis­it him be­hind bars after he was ar­res­ted for smoking crack with a mis­tress. In an­oth­er, he ac­cuses an an­onym­ous wo­man of ma­nip­u­lat­ing him with sex. “At­tract­ing wo­men was nev­er my reas­on for want­ing to lead,” he wrote, “but it was a trap that any man in power can get caught up in. And this wo­man had me in a com­prom­ised po­s­i­tion.”

For some, it’s easy to write these com­ments off play­fully as something a crazy uncle might say, and much of the me­dia have done that. Oth­ers have fo­cused on his self-con­grat­u­la­tion. The most newsy thing to come out of a me­dia event last Fri­day was his op­pos­i­tion to a nonex­ist­ent yogurt tax. Such col­or­ful cov­er­age, while of­ten en­ter­tain­ing, plays in­to an im­age of Barry as a wild but lov­able phil­an­der­er, just an­oth­er boy with a cook­ie jar who can’t help him­self.

His be­ha­vi­or doesn’t amount to a fluffy series of scan­dals but a sys­tem­at­ic mis­treat­ment of wo­men. To hear Barry tell it, there are es­sen­tially three types of wo­men in the world: the wo­man who traps you (sleep with her oc­ca­sion­ally), your equal (don’t marry her), and the wo­man who doesn’t com­plain (best kind).

In the first cat­egory, there’s Rasheeda Moore, bet­ter known to Barry as the “bitch” who “set me up,” by of­fer­ing him sex and crack in her hotel room and re­cord­ing it. There’s also an an­onym­ous temp­tress, who of­fers him co­caine, say­ing it makes her neth­er re­gions “hot.” Barry wrote: “What happened next? I had sex with her. She would nev­er have done that out in front of me if she didn’t want to tempt me.”

In the second cat­egory, there’s Tread­well, who cofoun­ded the jobs pro­gram Youth Pride with him (she’s the one who in­spired the “you can’t have two people of equal power in a re­la­tion­ship” com­ment). And Cora Mas­ters Barry, the wo­man he mar­ried after Ef­fi fi­nally couldn’t take liv­ing with him any­more. Here’s why his mar­riage with Cora didn’t work out in Barry’s words: “She was not as tol­er­ant as Ef­fi had been and I didn’t ex­pect her or want her to be. However, Ef­fi’s un­der­stand­ing was what had al­lowed us to be mar­ried through so many dif­fer­ent is­sues. I couldn’t ex­pect that from Cora.”

In the third cat­egory, there’s Ef­fi, the wife he praised for her “un­der­stand­ing” and tol­er­ance of his bad be­ha­vi­or. “There were al­ways ru­mors about me wo­man­iz­ing and drink­ing as the may­or of Wash­ing­ton,” Barry wrote, fail­ing to men­tion that many of the ru­mors were true. “But Ef­fi would ig­nore it all and nev­er let it both­er her. She wasn’t a jeal­ous wo­man.” Mike De­bonis, writ­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post, noted that she was re­portedly less than equan­im­ous about his af­fairs.

Even the wo­men he was cheat­ing with may have been un­der the im­pres­sion that he val­ued them more than he did. He wrote of his mis­tress Rasheeda: “I en­joyed Rasheeda’s com­pany, her con­ver­sa­tions and oc­ca­sion­al sex. She may have fan­tas­ized about something more than that but I didn’t.”

After I emailed Barry’s spokes­wo­man about this story, Barry called my cell Thursday night to say his per­son­al life is, well, per­son­al, and shouldn’t be scru­tin­ized for polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. “We got mar­ried and it didn’t work out, like six in 10 mar­riages in Amer­ica,” he said. He also re­peated a point he made in his book — that he hired a lot of wo­men as may­or, and that that’s a bet­ter meas­ure of his polit­ics. “What I did is in­cred­ible,” he said of his re­cord on wo­men. “No oth­er may­or has that kind of re­cord…. I’m trail­blaz­ing.”

The im­plic­a­tion is, if Barry treats the wo­men in his life poorly but hires and pro­motes a rep­res­ent­at­ive num­ber of wo­men pro­fes­sion­ally, his per­son­al life should be over­looked or ex­cused. When I read his quote back to him about how “you can’t have two people of equal power in a re­la­tion­ship,” he re­spon­ded, “What’s wrong with that?”

The token­ist­ic way that Barry writes about hir­ing wo­men in his mem­oir is re­min­is­cent of Mitt Rom­ney’s fam­ous com­ment back in 2012 that he has “bind­ers full of wo­men” on file for hire. “It was al­ways my goal to place wo­men in key man­age­ment and lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions,” Barry wrote of his hir­ing prac­tices. “I knew how hard they worked and loy­al they would be to achiev­ing our goals. We also in­volved the Asi­an, Latino, and Afric­an im­mig­rant com­munit­ies of Wash­ing­ton, and the col­lege kids.” You can al­most hear the soft mo­tion of his pen check­ing off the ob­lig­at­ory boxes.

In an­oth­er pas­sage on his hir­ing prac­tices, Barry denies a motive nobody was con­sid­er­ing. “Since I hired so many wo­men in my Cab­in­et and to high-de­part­ment po­s­i­tions, the D.C. gov­ern­ment had be­come wo­men friendly. But that didn’t mean I was sleep­ing with them.” The fact that he feels the need to ap­pend the last sen­tence is telling.

More than once, he’s be­rated loc­al of­fi­cials for hir­ing too many wo­men. In 2011 when Rochelle Webb was nom­in­ated to head D.C.’s De­part­ment of Em­ploy­ment Ser­vices, Barry cen­sured her for not hir­ing men for the lead­er­ship team. He began his at­tack by not­ing that when he was may­or, 51 or 52 per­cent of his Cab­in­et mem­bers were fe­male. “I know it was not in­ten­tion­al but I wanted to point out to you that I’m a little dis­turbed that there are no men,” Barry said, ac­cord­ing to Alan Suder­man, who was cov­er­ing loc­al polit­ics for The Wash­ing­ton City Pa­per at the time. “I’m sure that go­ing for­ward, as po­s­i­tions open up, that you’re go­ing to find some qual­i­fied men to fill those po­s­i­tions.” (It’s pos­sible that his cri­ti­cism here stems in part from a con­cern that black men in Wash­ing­ton are un­der­em­ployed due to dis­crim­in­a­tion or lack of op­por­tun­ity.)

An­oth­er time he op­posed the ap­point­ment of Ximena Hartsock as dir­ect­or of the Dis­trict’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation on the grounds that wo­men don’t care about sports as much as men do. He also ques­tioned why Hartsock, a His­pan­ic wo­man born in Chile who’d ob­tained per­man­ent res­id­ency, wasn’t a cit­izen. “I was mis­treated,” Hartsock said at the time. “Not only me, but my en­tire her­it­age.”¦ If Mari­on Barry was a white per­son and I was a black per­son, there would be ri­ots in the streets right now.”

In an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day night, Cora Barry de­fen­ded his hir­ing re­cord and ar­gued that his per­son­al polit­ics are a product of the era he was raised in. “How old are you?” she asked me. I told her I’m 29. “You’re eval­u­at­ing this from a 21st-cen­tury, 29-year-old prism and you’re talk­ing about a man who’s al­most 80 years old. It’s a dif­fer­ent time and era, and that’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to do”¦. Power re­la­tions between men and wo­men, wo­mens’ places, all of that was an evol­u­tion.” She also sup­por­ted his claims that he’s been a trail­blazer for wo­men, not­ing that he’d had fe­male chiefs of staff and that Madeline Petty, his dir­ect­or of hous­ing and com­munity de­vel­op­ment, was the first wo­man to hold that po­s­i­tion. “He had no prob­lem hir­ing wo­men,” she said.

Barry’s hir­ing of wo­men to prom­in­ent po­s­i­tions was more not­able when he served as may­or in the 1980s, or even when he served a second term in the late 1990s, than it may seem now. (His of­fice didn’t make more de­tailed in­form­a­tion about his hir­ing prac­tices avail­able.) It does not, however, grant him an ex­cuse to ar­gue there are too few men in lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions when the op­pos­ite is true, and it doesn’t make up for the way he’s treated the wo­men in his per­son­al life.

In the last sec­tion of his mem­oir, we learn that the book has truly been writ­ten for men when, un­der the head­ing “Fam­ily Val­ues = Eco­nom­ics,” Barry ad­dresses his pre­sumed audi­ence. “Now it’s time to look at the man in the mir­ror and have a frank dis­cus­sion with your­self, and areas that you need to change. Now fel­las, here’s a BIG prob­lem. We need more of you to step up and be MEN”¦. Don’t be in­tim­id­ated. She still needs you, no mat­ter how many zer­os she has in the bank. Even if you choose an al­tern­at­ive life­style, two is bet­ter than one.” There’s no sec­tion writ­ten for wo­men, just aph­or­isms and ad­vice for men.

Early cov­er­age of Barry’s mem­oir noted that he would make an ap­pear­ance on Oprah: Where Are They Now, but a spokes­wo­man told me that while “a short in­ter­view with Mari­on Barry was com­pleted for pos­sible in­clu­sion in an up­com­ing epis­ode,” no air date has been con­firmed.

While the token­ism around Barry’s pro­fes­sion­al treat­ment of wo­men is es­pe­cially pro­nounced, softer mani­fest­a­tions of that same sen­ti­ment can be found al­most every­where in polit­ics, from the White House to the cam­paign trail. The in­cred­ible story of Mari­on Barry Jr. shows just how ri­dicu­lous and prob­lem­at­ic that prac­tice can be.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle said Barry en­dorsed a non-ex­ist­ent yogurt tax. He op­posed the non-ex­ist­ent yogurt tax.

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