Of Philosophers and Queens

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?”

0 thoughts on “Of Philosophers and Queens

  1. It seems a reasonable argument to me. Virtues of HRC and BO aside, that we need to have such endless conversations about HRC’s “ambition” (either in concert with her husband or independent of him), strikes me as evidence of this phenomenon. Of course she has ambition and of course she’s a planner — what presidential hopeful isn’t? Why is it that we fault her for this? Why is it made to sound so sneaky and conniving when applied to her?


  2. Good point, Nick. It seems like the Obama people hold the 2002 vote to authorize force only against Clinton. Every single male Senator who ran for President in 2004 and in 2008 (Biden, Dodd, Edwards, and Kerry), with the exception of Bob Graham, voted “Yea” to authorize force in 2002. This was only a minor issue for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, and the Deaniacs all fell in line to support them, although many of us disliked that vote 4 years ago too. Presumably, those votes were cast by ambitious men with some kind of political calculation, so why is it only a political problem now for Clinton?


  3. I have to say though, his characterization of women like Elizabeth and Isabella as “successful” would probably be disputed by the vast majority of scholars of early modern women. Both of these women (especially Elizabeth) encountered prejudices as a result of their sex, and of the rest he named, few ruled without a king, who made them legitimate.

    I would have appreciated a list of all of the women across the globe who have been elected to positions of power. We don’t have to have a monarchy to accept female rule, just a society that actually accepts the presence of gender bias and is committed to overcoming it!


  4. Off the top of my head, I can think of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Sirimavo Bandanaraike, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, Isabel Peron, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Angela Merkel, and Michelle Bachelet. It’s probably worth distinguishing directly elected heads of state from heads of government chosen to lead parliamentary parties. There’s also the “dynasty” issue: Peron was the widow of a popular President, Bhutto, Gandhi and Bandanaraike were daughters of popular leaders. The last three were strong, capable leaders in their own right, but it’s open to question whether they would have reached the top without a dynastic ladder to stand on.


  5. Excellent point, rootless: it’s true that Parliamentary democracies with prime ministers have a much better track record of women’s leadership (though none yet has a tradition of it) than countries with systems like the U.S. which permit individual voters to choose the President. (Well, except for that monument of anti-democratic manipulation, the Electoral College, but don’t get me started…)

    And, you missed The Right Honourable Kim Campbell (1993-93), the first woman prime minister of Canada! O, Canada…


  6. I thought Kristof’s article yesterday raised some really good questions as well. I remember having this discussion with a good friend last fall, and by our count the only two major powers to never had a women leader were the United States and Japan. Japan wasn’t a huge surprise to me given all the contention surrounding Crown Princess Masako’s “failure” to produce an heir (Will women ever stop being judged by their ability to reproduce?)-But I certainly thought the United States to be more in line with the rest of the world.

    A more comprehensive list of world leaders can be found at:
    http://www.geocities.com/capitolHill/Lobby/4642/, there are several women leaders I didn’t know about.


  7. If she were running a more competent campaign, this wouldn’t be an issue right now. But the fact is that, for such a planner, she seems to have never planned adequately for Obama, for losing in Iowa, for anything beyond Super Tuesday, so that now her comments come off as extremely insulting to a lot of voters. The Clinton campaign seems to want to discredit every Obama victory because “it was a caucus” or because “there were a lot of black voters” or because “it was his home state,” etc. etc.

    If that’s true, then she’s run a miserable campaign. A smart campaign would have been able to get people out to caucus, and a smart campaign would have worked hard to try to win support from African-Americans. But instead, after losing in Iowa, Clinton brought out her husband to start attacking Obama, implying that he’s just a kid, not ready for prime time, and that his victories are based on racial divisions.

    Clinton is losing not because of the prejudices of her fellow Democrats, but because she has run an inferior campaign. I don’t think she should withdraw now, but if she doesn’t win on March 4, then yes, she should. If she wins the nomination by a backroom deal at the convention, it will have been a Pyhrric victory, and a disaster for the Democrats. At that point, she will have certainly sacrificed the party for the sake of her personal ambition.

    So in other words, many of these attacks against Clinton are not a result of her gender so much as a result of who she is as a candidate, and how she’s run this campaign.

    Also, yes, she won big in her Senate campaigns. I voted for her twice, and this New Yorker just wishes she would go away soon.


  8. Uhhmm, David, have you read the language people use in the comments to the Fish columns? I’m not spelling the rest of the race here. I’m agreeing with Fish that the language people use in talking about HRC exposes their motivations for opposing her. And his first column was published Feb. 3, and the comments in response were left on Feb. 3-4, in the two days before Super Tuesday, so I don’t think you can claim that they were working off of bad news about her strategy.


  9. I didn’t find Fish’s column particularly insightful or meaningful. Of course the Clintons have always had some crazies who think those things. That’s been around for over a decade, and is largely irrelevant, because no, the accusation that Clinton is a murder has not made it into mainstream discourse, unlike the Swiftboating of Kerry. It’s also no more pervasive than the belief that Obama is a Muslim, for instance.

    But such arguments are unrelated to the central problem, which is that you can look at Clinton and conclude very opposite things about her. You can do this not simply because we like to project dichotomies onto women, but because she herself has been all over the map during her political career, as has her husband. That’s not a problem of “women and leadership”; that’s a problem of “Hillary Clinton and leadership.”


  10. Well, the unfortunate thing is that both major parties in the United States have done such a poor job of grooming women for the top slots that we only have HRC, so N=1. The tiny (or nonexistent) number of women heads of state is in fact prima facia evidence of a problem of women and leadership, not just here but globally.

    In the interest of setting up a comparison, check out this old page that looks like it was set up to contest Elizabeth Dole’s presidential candidacy back in 1999-2000. Many of the same themes are there as descibed in the Fish posts:


    For example: charges that Dole is “calculating,” that she covers up stories for a naughty husband, that she is suspiciously wealthy, that she’s ideologically too slippery and unknowable (because of course that “calculating” nature!) The author of this website mentions Hillary Clinton as the closest analog to Elizabeth Dole, actually. It looks like some of HRC’s opponents could just do a global search and replace “Clinton” for “Dole!” (By the way, this looks to be a left-wing website, not an attack on Dole from the right.) “The scary thing is, since her whole life has been a single-minded pursuit of power — not for anything she has wanted to do with that power, but just to have it — what will she do if she really gets that power?” That sounds exactly like what’s over in the comments on Fish’s blog posts.


  11. Dave,

    I agree that Hillary’s has had problems in her campaign, but, as of today, they are basically tied in the delegate count. Barack has run a good campaign but has also been the beneficiary of unprecedented MSM coverage, using the Clinton rules. I am 55, and I cannot recall a democratic primary candidate who has gotten that type of coverage.

    On the other hand, Barack has not won the big states. It is a stubborn fact that she won CA, NJ, Ma, etc, and he didn’t. He couldn’t even win MA even with the Kennedy blessing! So much for passing the torch.

    He may very well win the nomination, but I would feel more comfortable if he could win Tx, Oh, or Pa. Otherwise, he would have put together a winning strategy by winning states like Idaho, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, etc.

    Do you think we get these states in the November election if Barack is the nominee? I don’t.

    Speaking of backroom deals, I see Barack camp has issue statements today that the race is over since he is now in the lead by 50 or so delegates. I guess his strategy is to pressure the superdelagaes into voting for him. Surely, you must be outrage by this maneuver. Why not let the voters decide?


  12. Hi, BEW–thanks for visiting and commenting! I’ve come to agree with David that HRC’s strategy was inferior to Obama’s in not organizing for the caucus states better. (See my post from last Tuesday night about the Colorado caucus that I attended.) Nothing succeeds like success–and I’m for whomever wins! But as you point out, we have a long way to go. I’m interested to see what the shakeups in campaign HQ will mean for HRC in Ohio and Texas. They are very different places–Ohio is a greying rust belt kind of place, and Texas heavily Latino, which would appear to give HRC an advantage. But Obama has the magic and the big “mo” right now, so we will all see…?


  13. Historiann,

    I forgot to say you have a very nice blog! I wander over here from Edge of the American West and will definitely be back. I am more a lurker than a commenter, though. (My description sounds a little more tacky that I intended…)

    Ohio and Texas will be interesting. The CW is that Hillary must win those states to stay in the race. I agree. If Barack is the nominee, I’ll vote for him in November. I’ll probably still have doubts but I’ll vote for him nonetheless.

    I still don’t understand why Fla and Michigan primaries were not reschedule. It seems to be a terrible penalty to disenfranchise people from voting. I thought only Republicans did that…


  14. Yeah, I don’t get that, either. Why does the Democratic Party mobilize to protect the interests of restauranteurs and innkeepers in New Hampshire and Iowa every four years? Do their interests really trump those of rank-and-file Dems in MI and FL? I just don’t get the privileging of the “special role” NH and IA play in our politics, Republican and Democratic. If they want to choose a smallish caucus state with a lot of conservative white people, why not Colorado? (It’s easier and cheaper to campaign here too, because all of the people live within 2 hours’ drive of Denver!)


  15. Hi BFW,

    You make some good points. I agree that the voters should decide, and that includes the superdelegates, who I am sure in the end will vote in their own self-interest. Whatever happens, happens. Clinton still has a shot, though her blowout losses recently haven’t helped her cause. I’d still argue that Obama has run a fantastic campaign. He doesn’t have Clinton’s name recognition or clout in the party, yet he’s fought her inch for inch everywhere in the country. Clinton seemed to have the advantages in this race and squandered them.

    As for the states Obama has won, I would only suggest that I do believe that either Hillary or Obama will carry the so-called “blue states” pretty easily in November. I’m not worried about Obama winning New York or California in the fall. What most interests me are the red states that I think are in play. That would include Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. Obama won the Colorado caucus easily, and won the Virginia primary easily. He didn’t campaign in Florida and Ohio is still to come. So it’s a bit of an open question for me at this point, but I’m optimistic about Obama’s chances of stealing Virginia in November. If the Republicans can’t win Virginia, they cannot win the election.

    Anyway, enough talking about the horse race. Let’s just let the votes decide.


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