Should Women Rule?

A clutch of books suggests they can’t rule like men. But there are other ways to run the world.

I have accorded former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers the apparently unusual honor of actually reading her book, Why Women Should Rule the World, and I will now discuss it, whether you want me to or not.

By “you,” I mean the surly female ur-reader who long ago elected to ignore the encroaching continent of women’s- studies tomes. Forget the male ur-reader. At this point, I doubt a man exists who would dive eagerly into a book about women’s superior leadership qualities. As to which men should, well, if there remains even one male executive in Canton, Ohio, unaware that hiring a qualified, well-liked, profit-driven female is a good thing, I say let him slump gloomily in business class with his Chivas and Clive Cussler, because his skyrocketing cholesterol (“Cholesterol? What’s cholesterol?”) will soon fell him anyway.

To be gender-neutral where one can, it is fair to note that the genre of Important Unread Books—by authors with weighty résumés who seem to be on every TV talk show, and in every Barnes & Noble window display, gazing boldly, hands on hips—is apparently not limited to women. In response to my puzzled query as to why I’d seen Myers’s book mentioned everywhere but read almost nowhere, a (male) friend of mine in publishing wrote:

I’d say the Myers book sounds like the female equivalent of what we in the bookstore business (my former occupation) used to call Father’s Day Books, e.g. anything by David Halberstam and/or about a Founding Father. Do people buy these books? Sure—they make great, heavy Father’s Day gifts. Do people read them? Er—I don’t have any exact figures, but I imagine more than a few of them are holding up wobbly Black & Decker work benches right now.

Still, when the first female White House press secretary (not to mention a Vanity Fair contributor) presents us women with a prescription for taking command of this sorry universe, shouldn’t we hop to? I asked another friend of mine, the co-director of a Bay Area women’s center and a fiery feminist if I’ve ever met one, if she’d picked up or even peeked into Myers’s book. “Well,” she sighed, “all those Washington political pundit women—they’re always in business suits on CNN blabbing on and on about something. I just can’t get excited.” But Myers’s thesis is provocative. And what sisters belittled and ignored by men (and we are!) wouldn’t savor a juicy salvo that vaults women to their rightful place (on top!)? The problem is, to gift Myers’s book onto a busy multitasking girlfriend feels like gifting her with an extra weekend chore. For one thing, juicy salvos lob nail bombs at men, and Myers carefully—and probably admirably?—refrains from directly putting men down. No, the tone throughout is as friendly and measured—with just a little flash of heel—as a quarterly report. Myers begins by stroking the feminine ego, if in a somewhat bland, business-book way: women should rule the world, the flap copy of her book asserts, simply because “women tend to be better communicators, better listeners, better at forming consensus.” Too, women are more practical than men. (Unlike certain presidents, a typical woman would know very well what a grocery scanner does.) Smart and tough, females have proved their excellence in the traditionally male fields—politics, business, science, and academia—that Myers suggests define public life, and she illustrates her points with a triumphal roll call of successful female CEOs, hard-driving female senators and governors, Jane Goodall, and a Third World Nobel Peace Prize winner with whose work I was not familiar but with whom clearly any sensible person would be hard-pressed to find fault. In short, as the jacket avers somewhat anodynely,

In a highly competitive and increasingly fractious world, women possess the kind of critical problem-solving skills that are urgently needed to break down barriers, build understanding, and create the best conditions for peace.

With more women in power, the world would be better off. Specifically? “Politics would be more collegial. Businesses would be more productive. And communities would be healthier.”

And yet, Myers maintains, for all our superior communicating, listening, and consensus building, the percentage of women at the highest levels of even the reasonably enlightened U.S. government is still woefully small, about 15 percent. Why don’t women rule the world? Because even bright women aren’t always allowed to shine in the Company of Men.

In support, she presents her own story. On the one hand, she still considers it an honor to have been chosen, in 1993, as the first female—and, at 31, one of the youngest ever—White House press secretary. She understands that, thanks to Bill Clinton’s pledge to have a staff that “looked like America,” she actually benefited by being a woman. On the other hand, Myers says she suffered the peculiarly female fate of having “responsibility without corresponding authority.” She was expected to hold at bay the press wolves of the briefing room without having access to the most up-to-date information shared by Clinton’s true inner circle, largely—it is fair to say—a boys’ club.

Her authority was further diminished by having to share her position, in a highly unorthodox arrangement. Although Myers was awarded the title of press secretary, the new “director of communications,” George Stephanopoulos, would assume the press secretary’s customary daily briefings (Myers would be “backup” briefer), the higher rank of “assistant to the president” (Myers would be “deputy assistant”), the press secretary’s traditional spacious West Wing office (Myers was assigned a smaller one), and, of course, the higher salary. Overall, it seems that Myers—who admits to struggling before the camera to get even her outfits and hair right—was outfoxed by George in every way:

I remember walking into [Stephanopoulos’s] transition office just days before we left Little Rock for Washington. There were some boxes leaning against the wall: long, wide, and oddly flat. “What’s in the boxes?” I asked. “Four new suits from Barneys,” he said. I’d never set foot in Barneys. George had managed to get himself to New York so that he’d be ready to stand behind the White House podium on Day One. Even if he wasn’t a woman, he understood that the world would be watching.

Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly, given the logrollings of punditland—the first rave on Myers’s back cover is by Stephanopoulos. So no hard feelings now, officially. Enticed by the delectable mention of the boxed Barneys suits and curious to read a side-by-side comparison of those early Clinton days (would George mention the demeaning conversation he’d had with Myers in the basement of the Arkansas governor’s mansion, blithely explaining her new responsibilities as “press secretary lite”?), I began reading Stephano​poulos’s 1999 memoir, All Too Human.

While Myers’s cover features her as a giantess towering commandingly over her authoritative title, Stephanopoulos’s cover shows only his face, vulnerable, doe-eyed, Jacqueline Bisset–like—in other words, all too human. The lessons Myers ultimately derives from her experience are supported with bold pronouncements, research, and statistics. By contrast, Stephanopoulos’s book is a Victorian bodice ripper. He describes his rapturous beginnings as an altar boy, the thrill of being behind the curtain, of staying calm in the face of power, of anticipating a powerful man’s needs. So un-shy is he about choosing the girly metaphor (“Paul Tsongas, a Greek American, was my intended. Joining his campaign would have felt like accepting an arranged marriage”) that soon a bad elf sent by Camille Paglia lit on my shoulder, jabbing a gleeful finger at every other line: “Clinton spoke to the me yearning to be singled out for a special job—the boy who had wrapped his fingers around the archbishop’s staff” (italics mine). “Clinton began his speech by working his way down the dais with a special word or inside joke for every politician there. Nice stroke” (italics his). And George reveals the former profession of Clinton’s finance-wizard buddy, Rahm Emanuel. How weird is this? Ballet dancer!

By the arrival of Dick Morris, the filthy, formerly estranged mistress (which led to Stephanopoulos’s sitting around bleary-eyed and depressed, like a dumped groupie, waiting in vain for a suddenly emotionally distant Clinton to call), the elf was exhausted. But—and disappointingly for this feminist—whereas such pressing activities as peeling off chipping nail polish distracted me from Myers’s careful and uplifting Working Woman–like book, in which the female leaders have all the complexity of profiles in an airline magazine, I could not stop reading Stephanopoulos’s romance.

In George’s White House, little is uplifting. Instead, there is abuse: Powerful gorgon Helen Thomas tears the communications director a new one on his first day and, after his flopped performance, cheerfully yells, “Welcome to the big leagues!” Rush Limbaugh superimposes George’s head on a baby in his reports; when George protests, Rush pastes George’s head on a toddler riding a rocking horse. And there are tears: Hillary yells at George, George bites lip, Hillary cries, George cries. Oh-so-many emotions run amok that Sensitive Male Al Gore helms a “bonding” workshop, inviting people to talk about their feelings.

The precious few mentions of Myers in Stephanopoulos’s memoir are strikingly (in this purplish narrative) polite. In the few group action photos in which she appears, the captions tend to read, “Dee Dee Meyers (obscured).” Writes Stephanopoulos of his Haldeman phase: “The infamous Time magazine cover photo, before they cropped out Dee Dee Meyers …” (the misspellings of Myers’s name are George’s). So yes, Myers seems marginalized, even in George’s book! Then again, by the end of those particular White House days, it appears that almost everyone limped out of there absolutely shattered, holding their clothes in a pile. (Say you faced the press without knowing everything Clinton knew? Welcome to the big leagues!) And if in the end Myers surely didn’t enjoy a Stephanopoulos-sized $2.75 million book advance, neither did she suffer All Too Human’s vitriolic “reviews,” a boy-on-boy Lord of the Flies slugfest ranging from, if I may, a fisting screed in National Review by esteemed literary critic (who knew?) Dick Morris to an appraisal in the usually genteel Salon that included such phrases as “star-fucking Machiavelli,” “a little shit,” “shorty,” “asshole,” and “the tragedy of Prickarus.”

Such is the language of the men who rule. As Stephanopoulos himself cozily recalls, his War Room buddy James Carville screamed in singsong when they scored a press hit on a political opponent (in language that would be unimaginable in Myers’s PG-rated book): “He’s going to have a clus-ter-fuck; he’s going to have a clus-ter-fuck.”

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Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest book, Mother on Fire, was published in August.

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