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.”

So as far as women ruling in politics, the tally would appear to be: Women are smart, principled, professional, cordial—and just a bit dull (and let’s not even go into Nancy Pelosi’s book, Know Your Power, which her press release dubs, with a telling thud, a “keepsake”). Men are conniving, crude, backbiting—and lively. In Myers’s formulation, women leaders are grown-up Girl Scouts who work toward their noble, humanistic (and at the same time, deftly bottom-line-enhancing) goals cheerfully and with just a little bit of moxie. The role models Myers celebrates include not Hillary Clinton (relations are strained) nor Condoleezza Rice (not actually indexed) but the country’s 16 genial female senators, who even in today’s climate have reached across the aisle, forged friendships, and cooperated on issues. (Myers even applauds Mary Matalin for … being a spirited but civilized co-host on the CNBC show Equal Time. Which is certainly a delicate and singular way of summing up Matalin’s legacy.)

At this point, I added The Architect: Karl Rove and the Dream of Absolute Power to my growing, unhappy heap of political biographies. (And let me tell you, to the Democratic husband, nothing is as sensually appealing as that thick Karl Rove biography tottering on the wife’s bedside table.) My gloom deepened as I read about Rove’s vast, conspiratorial, conservative stealth fog, a fog microdirected by Rove not during official meetings in the White House but during rendezvous on rainy Washington side streets (called to order by Rove’s quietly tapping on a car window). So while Myers’s estimable high-minded-ness about women is understandable for a person who cites, as youthful inspiration, Sally Ride (though God help Sally if she ever decided to enter politics! Under a Rove whisper campaign, even Sally’s thrilling career would be brought down to a fishy silt: “You know those female astronauts—as they age, they get desperate! Lonely! Infatuated! They’ll drive 40 hours! In diapers! Click link to see the funny cartoon Rush Limbaugh just photoshopped!”), if we want women to compete as rulers, I began to think, shouldn’t we be able to do everything men do, succeeding if need be as competitive, manipulative, backstabbing, foulmouthed egomaniacs? Consider dragon ladies Leona Helmsley (ran her own hotel chain), Judith Regan (ran her own O.J.-friendly publishing imprint), and Vogue’s Anna “Nuclear” Wintour, so legendary in her frosty evil. Ah, the state of the world! Here is the one Borgia-like female who could prove to be a match for a sadistic Republican Master Planner, in a Godzilla-versus-Mothra matchup, with much vicious BlackBerrying into the night (“Boots! We’re going to fight back with a mauve suede boot this season!”). But sadly, better lights like Dee Dee Myers have chosen safer, saner career paths—such as stay-at-home pundit.

Not that (more bad news!) women are generally predisposed to zero-sum games like elections, anyway—the caribou-hunting Republican vice- presidential candidate notwithstanding. To my come-hither bedside stack, I added The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap, by the Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker. Using the latest neurological and biological findings of brain-imaging and sex-hormone assays, Pinker adds scientific ballast to the anecdotal truisms that women are more consensus-minded and team-oriented, and are better at reading human visual cues, interpreting feelings, and maintaining relationships and relationship networks than men. Since you asked, females score high in math, too, but interestingly, unlike males, mathematically gifted females also tend to be high scorers in other areas, giving them more academic freedom to opt out.

But when it comes to competition, in that great neuroendocrine smackdown, there goes the female advantage. Consider this startling study done with fourth-grade Israeli schoolchildren: when boys and girls each ran alone on a track, there was no measurable speed difference by gender. But when each child was teamed with another child and asked to run again, the boys ran faster and the girls ran slower—slowest of all when running against other girls! What females love is bonding, helping, sharing, and oxytocin—that “opiatelike hormone” dubbed by one anthropologist “the elixir of contentment.” Forget all this tedious racing: what girls would really like to do is carry each other around the track—taking turns! Indeed, studies show that whereas competitive situations drive adrenaline increases in men, they drive adrenaline decreases in most women. Men associate more pleasurable feelings with competition than do women, and even “an eagerness to punish and seek revenge feels more fun.” (Remember “tragedy of Prickarus” and “He’s going to have a clus-ter-fuck; he’s going to have a clus-ter-fuck”? Good times! Good times!) Even more harrowing: for men, not only does the urge to punish correlate with an increase in testosterone, but testosterone can measurably spike when they touch a gun.

And that’s just the dog-eat-dog male aggression you can see. Yet more pernicious is the result when that worldview is encoded, unquestioned, systemic. Indeed, the next layer of female radicalism belongs to those who argue that even the perception of money as a “measuring rod” is itself male-centric. In a hard-to-find yet truly groundbreaking book, Counting for Nothing (1988), Marilyn Waring, a lesbian goat farmer and member (then the youngest) of the New Zealand parliament, reveals few concerns about her hair and outfits and goes way beyond the trepidations and personal politics of being a female in a male-dominated government to hit back at—yes, and why not?—men, with a force so bracingly Old School as to be almost medieval. To one who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, when feminists had flowing hair and gypsy skirts, Waring’s crew-cutted, steel-belted work is a shock. Formidably literate (tossing Einstein, Marx, Engels in here and there, like little folk proverbs) and unflinchingly numerical (warning her sisters that demystifying the economic system will be tough, calling economic textbooks “generally alienating, turgid, bludgeoning”), Waring eschews metaphysical questions of female selfhood and uses her pussy power to dive into a painstaking analysis of the United Nations System of National Accounts.

Essentially—and I confess, this was all news to me—the modern system of global GNPs and GDPs has its roots in a 1939 paper by John Maynard Keynes and Sir Richard Stone (who was later awarded the Nobel Prize), titled “The National Income and Expenditure of the United Kingdom, and How to Pay for the War.” Let us set aside the fact that zero value is assigned to the traditional household labor of women, including human reproduction—without which, as Waring points out, the whole system would collapse. (Actually, attending doctors, nurses, midwives, and anesthesiologists have quantifiable value, while the laboring mother does not.) An African female villager’s water-carrying, fuel-gathering, food-preparing, 4 a.m.–to–9 p.m. workday counts as a zero, while a male criminal dealing in drugs and prostitution contributes to national growth (according to how the national income is measured in Italy).

As Waring hammers home with example after absurd example, policies that spring from building national GDPs can be destructive to the planet as well as to humans. In calculations of a GDP, a chemical spill is a good thing (think of the labor and expense—that’s national growth!). A beautiful mountain is worth zip, but strip-mining—now there you have your growth again. Fresh fruit picked off your tree—nada. If you want to create growth, you must buy packaged corn chips. “Peace” itself has no value in a war-based economy—so the value of “safety” is determined by the price people pay for it (a town safe enough to leave doors unlocked gets a zero, while the armored cars and private security guards of São Paulo, Brazil, create growth).

Although Waring was not privy, in 1988, to the 21st-century neurobiological discoveries that Susan Pinker describes, she relentlessly ascribes certain behavioral traits to males. The free-market founder himself, 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith, “established the logical foundation for his work by identifying what he thought was essential human nature,” she writes. “He developed an image of humans as materialistic, egoistic, selfish and primarily motivated by pursuit of their own self-interest.” Quoting Smith:

Man [sic] has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only … It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

As we now know, Smith’s assertion would indeed be true in a world made up only of men (a world, that is, in which the dinner on your dining-room table is mysteriously uncooked).

But fortunately, ours is not a world only of men.

All right, so what if wo-men are power-wielding-impaired? Is ruling the world the only way to change the world? Recently, prompted by yet another round of proposed California public-education budget cuts (although California is the 10th-largest global economy, our per-pupil funding is among the lowest in the nation, according to an Education Week analysis adjusted for regional cost differences), I decided, in the heat of motherly perimenopausal ire, to throw a grassroots protest on the front steps of the Sacramento Capitol. At 46—a bit too long in the tooth to be Gen X, while still having managed to miss Woodstock—this was my very first street rally, so the skills I used (permit writing, release filing, Excel spreadsheeting) were those I’d acquired working for the PTA at my daughters’ school. And while parents of both sexes seemed equally outraged about the budget cuts—many fathers passionately blogged about it and rapped out irate e-mails of “big ideas” (Get Jack Black from Kung Fu Panda to appear! How about a line of school buses 20 miles long?)—it was only the mothers who rallied themselves, in groups of two, 10, and 30. It was (surprise, surprise) the mothers who packed 15-person vans with pillows and blankets at 2 a.m., cut up apples and oranges, and hammered stakes in our tent city of 100-plus people (Sacramento is an eight-hour drive from L.A., so we rented RVs and camped).

True, our little rally was nothing compared with Donna Dees-Thomases’s Million Mom March on Washington in 2000, an event she chronicles in her astonishing (and also hard to find!) book, Looking for a Few Good Moms—a volume that contains the most dauntingly titled appendix I’ve ever seen: “How to Organize a Bus.” Dees-Thomases quotes a man, Million Mom Marcher Bill Jenkins—whose 16-year-old son had been shot dead while working at a fast-food restaurant—on the political power of numbers in the crusade she and her grassroots horde are waging:

There are two ways to hunt. In one, the hunter … enters the forest alone … This is how the gun industry has been fought in the past. Dedicated lawyers and lobbyists who have learned its every move have been fighting one-on-one. Sometimes they have gotten clear shots and scored minor victories.

But there is another way to hunt … The entire village enters the forest. Not highly trained, just willing participants. They beat the brush, driving the quarry to open ground, and surround it, and the hunt is over.

Crowding, in fact, may be more effective for women than ruling when it comes to changing the world. While at a biological disadvantage in competitions, women—who even make trips to restaurant bathrooms in pairs—are at a clear advantage when it comes to grouping together and the activities that accompany it: gossiping, sharing, bonding, assisting, scrapbooking, and building networks.

Given the apparent female neuro­endocrinic aversion to competitive, winner-take-all activities like elections, unless testosterone shots become a new female norm, even democracy (thanks, Founding Fathers!), with its boastful, chest-beating campaigning, is clearly stacked against female candidates. (Now a monarchy, on the other hand, we could do. Instead of England’s Elizabeths, let’s throw in our own version of royalty like, who, some Kennedy women? Surely Oprah will know whom to choose. And while we’re making wish lists, for the betterment of our planet and our communities I suggest, à la Waring, that we move immediately, on a global level, to a moneyless, relationship-based barter system.)

Barring such fantasies, we should learn to better organize our crowding. Today, the Barnes & Noble “Women’s Studies” shelves are thick with books on women’s self-esteem, on women’s bodies, on women and money. But to exert more true power in the world, we need to pay less attention to our feelings, our clitorises, and even our 401(k)s. Why in five decades of modern feminist writing have we never seen any serious consideration of, for instance, the PTA, a hugely powerful, 100-plus-year-old, women-founded and women-dominated organization, whose well-funded and effective lobbying arm can actually help push through legislation? The women’s movement has ignored millions of PTA women—women busy baking brownies and zooming about in their Kohl’s wear, who can’t rule the world but who can change it. My fellow PTA mothers—“change agents” all—we need more books that teach us to build and direct our networks to do the work we value. Women, that is, need more books on how to organize a bus.

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