“New archeological evidence shows Boadicea, the warrior queen who led the Britons in revolt against the Romans, in a very different light: as a calculating, vengeful and brutal military leader, who methodically razed cities.” — The Observer, December 3, 2000
“Can we bring ourselves to recognize our common interest as women and wield power on the basis of it?” feminist and former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich asks in her new book, Sex & Power. And how might women exercise power? Women, Estrich chirps, “talk less, and let others talk more; listen more, exercising influence and wielding power indirectly…the discussion is more open; and conflicting views are more often and more readily voiced.”
Who’s she kidding? History abounds with sagas of powerful women who did not let others talk more, weren’t good listeners, and didn’t particularly relish the open exchange of conflicting views — who were, in short, as manly, if not more so, than men.
Want to raze a village? Boadicea, England’s warrior queen, was just the gal to get the job done. A revered figure and a sentimental favorite of Victorian painters, Boadicea is commemorated by a statue that stands on Westminster Bridge, near the Houses of Parliament. She is remembered for her bravery in leading a revolt against her country’s occupiers, the Romans, in 60 A.D. Alas, recent discoveries at an archeological dig near Colchester — a town seized and destroyed by Boadicea — led dig director Philip Crummy to compare Boadicea’s program and tactics to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans.
Boadicea’s brutality was noteworthy, even by the standards of her era. A dismayed Crummy marveled to the Observer: “These were not flammable buildings. But they were leveled. It was a murderous, determined, intensive, and deliberate attack.” Historians estimate that 70,000 Romans and their “collaborators” perished before the Roman general Paulinus’ legions caught up with Boadicea’s rebel force. Rallying her soldiers from her chariot, Boadicea fought on against the superior Roman army. Once surrounded, she drank poison rather than surrender.
Nor did Boadicea’s distaff descendants shy away from violent displays of power. Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII, didn’t earn the sobriquet “Bloody Mary” by listening to conflicting views. Perhaps no female figure has better understood power and how to keep it than Mary Tudor’s sister, Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign (1558-1603), England became a great power with a prosperous economy and the beginnings of a colonial empire. Elizabeth, who was known to relish a good bear-baiting, evinced a genius for diplomacy, often using the lure of marriage to reel in foreign allies. Elizabeth was not, however, particularly gifted at recognizing her common interest with other women: In 1587 she ordered the beheading of the charming and clever Mary Queen of Scots. (Apparently Mary also lacked the ability to recognize a common interest with other women — she had been involved in a plot to murder Elizabeth and seize the English throne.)
Women across the Channel were equally tough. Catherine de Medici, the queen consort of Henry II of France, helped plan, and convinced a reluctant Charles IX to carry out the bloody Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of France’s Protestants in 1572, an event that triggered a resumption of the Wars of Religion.
A modern leader both Boadicea and Elizabeth likely would have admired was Margaret Thatcher. During her tenure as the longest-serving British prime minister of the twentieth century, Thatcher launched the Falklands War. She maintained a steely posture during the waning days of the Cold War and pursued an unwavering path of free market expansion.
And then there’s former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was often vilified for her attempts to wield influence without accountability — and indeed, received a much-deserved drubbing for her health care debacle. But the fact remains that she has always had a keen understanding of how power works. White House insiders have noted that Hillary took a much more combative approach to impeachment than her husband; one assumes she will now put her understanding of power to work in the U.S. Senate.
Throughout history women have also not been above deploying a finely calibrated combination of feminine wiles and old-fashioned politicking to exercise power behind the scenes. One exemplar was the eleventh century’s Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, earl of Mercia. When Leofric refused to heed her entreaties to lower the region’s heavy tax burden, Godiva rode naked through the town of Coventry in protest.
Despite the lessons of history, flaky models of cooperative power-sharing (not to mention the introduction of ugly neologisms such as “womanpower,” which has found its way into the American Heritage Dictionary) remain popular with feminists. Feminist theorist Kathleen Jones, for example, proposes in her book Compassionate Authority that women should use power to create more cooperative and compassionate models of governing. Rather than pursuing power to dominate, she says, women should be trying to construct a “woman-friendly” concept of authority. “What constitutes authority, for women, is exactly what is feared most by men,” she writes, “sustained connections, or what Freud called the altruistic urge for union in relationship to others.” One wonders where that altruistic urge was when Boadicea was slaughtering Romans.
Others have indulged their longing for “herstories” of powerful women, and in the process constructed theories about the benevolent, matriarchal exercise of power. Though by now anthropologists reject claims that early societies were matriarchal, some feminist theorists still cling to the idea that primitive matriarchies once dotted the globe.
The idea of matriarchal utopias, where women acted as more respon-sible stewards of power than men, was best described in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist fiction, Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel. In Gilman’s Herland, perfection means the utter absence of men, and hence “parthenogenic births producing only girl children.”
Herland is also a place where the lack of men presumed peaceful harmony in all things. It is a country of beautiful gardens, well-kept houses, and centralized daycare facilities where “everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness, and the pleasantest sense of home over it all.” If it takes a village to raise a child, then Herland would meet with any good feminist’s approval. The three bumbling men who happen upon this Amazonian oasis offer awed descriptions of the place; they wonder aloud at the society’s orderliness and lack of rancor, and are fine foils for Gilman’s message of female empowerment.
In reality, societies ruled by women don’t remotely resemble the mythic Herland. They have witnessed the same sorts of coups, corruption, and intrigue as male-led nations. All is not order, cleanness, and benevolent harmony. In contemporary Bangladesh, for example, Sheik Hasina, the daughter of the country’s first president, and Khaleda Zia, widow of another former president are locked in a bitter power struggle. Their arch-rivalry is the cause of national paralysis; the legislature remains deadlocked while their feud rages on. In Sri Lanka, where Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman prime minister in 1960, the political matriarchy now run by Bandaranaike’s daughter (president Chandrika Kumaratunga) is plagued by allegations of corruption.
Like Thatcher, Indira Gandhi was a leader who understood power — and so ruled like a man. She favored an authoritarian over a cooperative ruling style after becoming prime minister in 1966. Though she was called the “Mother of India,” Gandhi did not hesitate to pursue rather unmotherly activities such as intervening in Pakistan’s civil war and bringing India into the nuclear age by acquiring atomic weapons. When opposition to her government increased in 1975, she responded by suspending civil liberties and jailing her opponents. Briefly forced from power in 1977, she returned triumphant a few years later and ruled until she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984. In a fitting tribute to her martial style, her corpse was “waltzed around New Delhi on a Soviet howitzer,” as the National Review described it.
This is not the kind of power that contemporary feminists admire. Feminists such as Susan Estrich believe that women share a common set of interests that can and should be transformed into united political action to achieve power. Why, she says, do we “act singly, when our greatest power would come from collective action?”
It would seem incumbent upon anyone who wrote a book titled Sex & Power, at least to make mention of the women throughout history who have successfully melded the two. But Estrich’s interests are far more parochial — indeed, hers is an extended exercise in navel-gazing among well-educated, white, upper-middle-class women like herself. Estrich’s laboratory is not the rough-and-tumble world of geopolitics, but the world of the corporate and educational elite. Estrich’s ideal society would be a cozy corporate coven where women’s ways of wielding power would reign supreme. Hers is a vision of “woman-power” that suggests a world of power-sharing. In this world, the pursuit of power is a personal journey for women, not the merciless game of give-and-take that power really entails.
Not only do feminists reject the clash of ideas, and even the clash of arms, that is required to exercise power, they picture an unrealistic world of power-sharing on the basis of sex. In her book, Estrich describes how a female faculty member at Harvard Law School earned Estrich’s enmity because she refused to use her position to promote women. The ungrateful wretch “had no sense of the special responsibility she bore precisely because she was a woman,” Estrich writes, declaring that the woman’s behavior was “worse than being ungrateful, closer to treacherous than just bad manners.”
Estrich envisions a world where “women cross the predictable lines of party, or neighborhood, or class, or employer, or division, when we don’t fall for divide-and-conquer.” Yet she fails to prove that there is or has ever been agreement among women about what our collective interests should be.
Only once does Estrich reveal a glimmer of understanding of how power really works. Towards the end of her book, buried amid a complaint about women trying to please men, she notes that “Sometimes it is better to be feared than loved.” This is the understanding of power that Boadicea and Margaret Thatcher possessed.
Ultimately, the lesson Estrich and her ilk have yet to learn is that power requires sacrifice and brings with it responsibilities — and many ugly realities. Contemporary feminism has never adequately grappled with the requirements of personal responsibility (hence the hysteria over sexual harassment).
Moreover, to paper over weak or indecisive leadership by calling it “cooperative” or “compassionate” is a luxury available only during times of peace and prosperity. As Irving Kristol recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the expansion of the new, maternalist welfare state, with its glorification of limitless compassion, can continue only so long as external threats are minimal. The maternalists’ eagerness to spend money on social programs — and their intense dislike of military expenditures and other “paternalistic” enterprises — ignores the reality that the United States will always have enemies, and thus will always need to protect itself with the use of force. The meek might inherit the earth, but the weight of human history is behind the observation that only the strong survive.
In the end, we should expect women to understand this lesson as well. Women in power should be held to the same standards as men, and should exercise their authority with a clear-eyed responsibility. Women should be able to wield force when necessary. That is real power. And it is a game with gender-neutral rules.