That line gets used by everyone these days--Taylor Swift, Sarah Palin, Olivia Pope's foes. Madeleine Albright, widely credited with coining the phrase years ago, this winter drew criticism when she used it to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
This "special place in hell" is also a shorthand reference to a much-discussed, much-debunked phenomenon of woman-on-woman professional violence: "Queen Bee" syndrome, or what Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, writing recently in The New York Times, called "the myth of the catty woman."
It was a somewhat frustrating choice of topic for Sandberg. Facebook's second-in-command is one of the most powerful women in tech and the leading expert on gender in the workplace. In her 2013 Lean In book and subsequent big-picture essays, she's created a powerful sideline opining about the intersections of women's personal and professional lives.
So why are some of those opinions so disappointingly general? They're jarring in contrast to Sandberg's remarkable, powerful transparency about her own personal life, especially in the wake of her husband's sudden death last year. But when it comes to some of the biggest professional issues facing one of the most powerful women in business, Sandberg has much less to say.
For example: how to navigate a relationship with an important but potentially toxic investor, one whose political beliefs sharply conflict with yours. Take Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook director who secretly bankrolled the lawsuits that drove Gawker into bankruptcy--involvement that created an enormous amount of controversy and criticism when it came to light.
Thiel is a libertarian and Donald Trump supporter whose views on feminism, it's safe to say, are diametrically opposed to Sandberg's. He once wrote that the era "during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics" ended once women got the right to vote. Sandberg, meanwhile, formally endorsed noted woman presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last month.
But her professional position has required her to glide around those differences, and to help ensure Thiel's retention at Facebook. "Peter did what he did on his own, not as a Facebook board member," she said at a Recode conference, adding that Thiel would remain on the company's board. (He did.)
That must create some awkwardness for Sandberg, a professional advocate of professional women who would most certainly like to vote, possibly for a candidate who won't accuse them of playing "the woman card." (And that's one of the least offensive ways to end a sentence about Trump's opinions on gender.)
Of course Sandberg, like most smart corporate executives, isn't going to jeopardize her professional status, or investor confidence in her company, by airing current professional dirty laundry. Nor should she. But wouldn't it be amazing if, instead of debating tired old sexism myths, she gave modern women some real insight into the nuanced, complicated challenges that female leaders are currently facing?
Sandberg's position at Facebook puts her in the center of some of the thorniest topics in both business and politics today, including free speech, hate speech, trolling, access to (or suppression of) information, online privacy, and national security. The decisions she makes on each such issue will have far more long-reaching ramifications than op-eds about how "women create opportunities for women."
Perhaps there's no obligation for a powerful woman to help other women by delving into the real-time complications and compromises of holding power. It's certainly not always fair to expect it.
But as women like Sandberg and Clinton have learned, being the most prominent woman to do something means that all of your actions, words, and choices take on an extra weight. What she does affects the options available to younger women--and teaches younger women what works, and what doesn't, as they work toward similar power.
In other words, avoiding that special place in hell isn't enough; sometimes you also have to actively work for a place in heaven.