‘Gaslit’ Retells the Story of Watergate from an Unfamiliar Perspective

‘Gaslit’ shows us the playbook for women without access to key power networks exerting political influence. But it also exposes the potential pitfalls of those paths.

(Courtesy of Starz)

Like most of history, the Watergate scandal is typically a story told by men, about men. But the new Starz show “Gaslit” chooses to retell the story from an unfamiliar perspective — recasting the narrative from the viewpoint of Martha Mitchell (as played by Julia Roberts) — the Watergate whistleblower. 

When Martha, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell, is transplanted from New York to DC, she finds herself on the fringes of the Nixon administration — but at the center of the Watergate scandal.

We won’t give any spoilers, but let’s just say Martha isn’t the only woman involved in exposing the truth. Does this depiction of women in “Gaslit” just reinforce tired stereotypes about women? Or is there something to the fact that it is women who ultimately changed the tide in the Watergate investigation.

Are Women Less Corrupt?

It’s tempting to see this as a case of a morally upstanding woman, attempting to do the right thing and expose corruption despite all odds. That wouldn’t necessarily be an incorrect characterization. But to stop here really misses the point. 

Women are less likely to be suspected of corruption. They are less likely to engage in corruption. They may even be tapped to clean up after scandals. But this isn’t for the reasons you may be thinking.

There’s no evidence to suggest women are more trustworthy. Among the public, women at least are not more likely to view women politicians as more honest than men. For her part, Martha — depicted as a spotlight-hoarding, pill-popping, lush — hardly inspires trustworthiness.

Instead, women are more likely to shy away from risks — particularly when the threat of being caught is high. And since women are typically excluded from the powerful male networks that facilitate corruption, they may have fewer opportunities to engage in malfeasance. For Martha, these explanations ring true.

For one, she thought her husband was being set up as the fall guy. By all accounts she loved her husband, and her wellbeing is completely wrapped up in his. Keeping her mouth shut certainly seemed riskier than whistle blowing with her husband’s reputation and freedom on the line. 

Perhaps more important, she was clearly an outsider. At first it might be hard to see Martha as marginalized — she’s rich, and extremely popular. She’s appearing on talk shows and sought after for interviews. But, in the portrayal of Martha we get an archetype of women as political outsiders — showing how within the world of politics, they are marginalized and have their credibility undermined in very gendered ways.  

And, it’s clear from Roberts’ portrayal that Martha feels this exclusion acutely. She remarks to a reporter she has been banned from Air Force One. She is stung by Pat Nixon scheduling an event to conflict with her own and relegating her to a seat in the corner.

Once the scandal starts to unfold, the Nixon administration actively keeps her at arm’s length with extreme measures. They detain her in a hotel room. Cut her off from the outside world. And try to prevent her from piecing together the Nixon campaign’s involvement in the Watergate break-in.  

She is further marginalized as her struggles with mental health are revealed,  her voice is relegated to less-serious news outlets, and counter-stories meant to discredit her gain traction in the press. These tactics work to sideline Martha, and women more generally, because of the stereotypes we hold about women as emotional and unfit for politics. 

Still on the Outside?

Of course, in a 1970’s political drama, it may not seem surprising that women would have to influence politics from the outside. A lot has changed since Martha Mitchell stood on the sidelines over 50 years ago. But, a lot has stayed the same.

It would be another 20 years after Martha made her mark as the AG’s wife before the first woman — Janet Reno — was appointed Attorney General. Even today, prestigious cabinet posts are still largely reserved for men.

Although a record number of women serve in Biden’s Cabinet, only two women have ever been AG. Janet Yellen is the first woman Secretary of Treasury. And, the U.S. has never had a woman Secretary of Defense. Women are likewise dramatically underrepresented in congress.

When women do come to power, they don’t often hail from the same backgrounds and circles of power as men.

Influence from the Outside

When  women are marginalized, they can try to access these networks to gain influence of some kind. The AG’s wife trying to interfere in politics may conjure images of Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, texting Mark Meadows in an attempt to interfere in U.S. Presidential elections. But, this isn’t exactly what we have in mind.

Martha is scornful of her husband’s loyalty to Nixon, she empathizes with a reporter whose brother is in Vietnam. So what does she do? She makes networks of her own, with actors who can challenge public officials and potentially hold them accountable—the media. She does it by cultivating comfortable connections, cocktails and gossip over late night calls with reporters. 

In much the same way that Martha finds unconventional ways to exert her political influence, when women politicians are left out of “good ol’ boy,” networks they pursue their own strategies. Women politicians collaborate more frequently, establish unique networks, and provide more legislative oversight than men. As a result women often bring home more funding, provide more public goods, sponsor more bills, and have more success advancing their legislation. 

The Martha Mitchell Playbook 

Just as women in politics today find a way to exert their power, the argument could also be made that Martha was ultimately  successful. To wit: Nixon’s much later admission to interviewer David Frost that without Martha Mitchell there would never have been a Watergate Scandal.

Essentially, then, Martha shows us the playbook for exerting political influence without access to key power networks. But, she also exposes the potential pitfalls of exercising those alternatives. Women who have to contend with being sidelined must also navigate the potential to be undermined when they do assert themselves.

About and

Emily Bacchus is a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her at her websiteor follow her on Twitter at @EBeautifulPlace.
Tiffany D. Barnes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter at @tiffanydbarnes.