Nicholas Kristof’s column yesterday in the New York Times contained some trenchant (if not novel) observations about women and leadership. He based his analysis on a review of the last couple thousand years of world history, and pondered why there have been relatively few women heads of state since the Age of Revolutions, relative to their at least occasional appearance as sovereign monarchs before 1800. His theory: “In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to navigate public prejudices – and these make democratic politics far more challenging for a woman than for a man.”
The problem he points to is that the demos in democracy–that is, all of us voters–perceive women to be either likable or capable, but rarely both. “This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts,” reports Kristof. Excellence, or even competence, is not a feminine virtue. It’s enough to make a girl go curl up with Catharine Mackinnon and re-read Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, you know, the parts where she deconstructs the whole concept that so-called liberal democracies work for women as well as men?
Your thoughts, gentle readers?
UPDATE: Speaking of the contradictory things people want to see in women leaders, see this blog post by Stanley Fish on Hillary Clinton hatred, a follow-up to his original post last week discussing its rabid, evidence-free nature. (Warning: if you click those links, watch out for flying monkeys!) The huge number of comments that column and this one elicited offer us a disturbing view of our culture’s misogyny, and the twisted logic that has corrupted the minds of some putative Democrats. As Fish explains, many commentors suggest that the mere existence of this irrational hatred, lamentable though it is, is a good enough reason not to support Clinton. “In other words [their logic goes], by being the targets of unwarranted attacks – that is their crime, being innocent-the Clintons are putting us in the uncomfortable position of voting against them for reasons we would rather not own up to. How dare they? Given the fierceness of the opposition to her candidacy, why doesn’t Hillary do the decent thing and withdraw? ‘What bothers me about Hillary is that she must know this, yet she apparently thinks so much of herself, or wants to be president so badly, that she’s willing to risk compromising the Democrats’ chances of winning in November to stay in the race’ (Matthew, 440). How inconsiderate of her both to want to be president and to persist in her quest in the face of calumny.”
It’s simply unimaginable that people would make that demand of a male politician. Quite the contrary, in fact: George W. Bush has made the opposition of 70% of Americans a self-styled badge of honor. Barry Goldwater made it seem to other conservatives that his walloping in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson was something to be proud of. How dare a Senator who was re-elected with nearly 70% of the vote “think so much of herself,” or “want to be president?”
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