Women and Power

It’s bad enough that women have to work twice as hard as men. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “You have to run twice as hard to stay in the same place.” We also have to prove that while competing in a world that is already skewed against us, we have not lost our ‘femininity’. A headline in rediff.com today trumpets, ‘Indra Nooyi is first a mother, then a CEO’. My first reaction was outrage. Can you envision a headline that goes, ‘Donald Trump – first a dad then a pompous windbag tycoon’?

Poor Hillary Clinton is getting the same sort of media slant here in the US. Portrayed as cold, calculating, manipulative and aggressive, qualities that in a man would almost automatically make him eligible for power, she has had to dumb down her vocabulary, make her campaign pitch from her living room sofa and, in an attempt to soften her image, laugh inappropriately at various talk shows. “I may be a b****,” she seems to be saying, “but the operative word is ‘female’.”

The cultural contradiction between power and femininity is quite pronounced in the US and it seems even more jarring given that the feminist movement had such strong underpinnings in this country. Perhaps the mistake early feminists made was in burning their bras. In other countries where women have had an easier time reaching the pinnacles of power, they have done so by using their feminine roles as a tool to navigate the treacherous and sensitive realm of politics. Indira Gandhi portrayed herself as the ‘Mother’ of her country and Benazir Bhutto calls herself the ‘Sister’ to her people.

In some way, the assumption of these roles makes the strong women appear less threatening, not just to men but sadly, to their fellow women. Our cultural leanings make us more comfortable with female success if it couched in gender stereotypes. (In an interesting twist, Hilary Sips postulated in a presentation made in 1999 that too much femininity was as disruptive to the positive identification with power. The example she gave was of Canadian politician Kim Campbell who was photographed with bare shoulders – a case where the femininity completely negated the impression of power. Here too, we have seen the brouhaha caused when Senator Clinton ‘dared’ to show a hint of cleavage.)

So perhaps it is understandable that women in power take care to make their nurturing, maternal, gender specific qualities publicly visible. Hey, if that’s what it takes – we’re already coping with glass ceilings, unequal pays, double duty at work and home – if the way to get ahead is by being coy and soft and non-threatening, well, then, it’s what we’ve got to do.

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