Power and the feminine
If only a woman in power meant a woman truly empowered.
If only a woman in power meant a woman truly empowered.
I’m so glad no one asked me to write about women in power 20 years ago. It was 1997. I was smashing it in 1997. First year of a highly competitive university degree, winning all the things. Writing about women in power then would have produced a piece that was part invitation to join the celebration of the triumph of equality, and part subtle scold of women who, like the lecturer in my introductory feminism class, appeared stuck in the adorably irrelevant ’70s. Everything she described seemed so out of touch with my (lack of) experience that I dismissed it the way you do when an aging relative tells you they’re off to the post office to pay their “electric” because you can’t trust The Internet.
If I wrote this piece in 1997, I’d have been excited to tell you that the US had just appointed its first female secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. “You go girl!” I’d say, because that’s what we sometimes said to encourage women in 1997. I’d also repeat, with gratitude, Madeleine Albright’s advice to women in power: never carry a purse, so that you can go into meetings with your arms swinging free like a man. Men never carry bags.
This advice stayed with me into my first job. I purchased a large zipped folder instead, black, in a “man’s brand” and carried it beside me always, like a Roman foot-soldier with his leather shield at the ready. I hid my tissues, lip-balm, tampons, train-ticket, money and menstrual-migraine medication inside it, often layered between sheets of paper like some kind of absurd flower-press of my human needs. No purse for me. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes women used to make.
There’s not enough time (in the world) for me to detail all the ways in which young, winning-all-the-things-Sarah was not saved by that folder. I described the folder to a friend recently, who nodded with dead-eyed weariness and described her own Madeleine Albright moment: when her mum gave her a copy of a book called Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. “It listed all the things women do wrong,” she said, “like tipping your head sideways to show you’re really listening; baking things for your colleagues; decorating your office; being friendly; working too hard to prove yourself.” I found a copy and the entire book reads as a long list of how every possible thing about you, as a woman, is wrong for the corner office. It’s insultingly accurate. We live in a patriarchal society created by powerful men for powerful men. I’ve had 20 years to see that the rush to eradicate the feminine in order to fit patriarchal notions of a powerful person, a leader, means following the advice in that guidebook to the letter. As described, it means not displaying natural human emotions; caring for or calorically nourishing your workmates; attempting to bring beauty to brutalist cement-sheeted structures via potted-plants or pictures; or ever questioning the existence of something beyond this current set-up unless you want to sound like you can’t handle it.
For the last 20 years of my life, I’ve watched how being a woman in power has mostly meant being a woman engaged in the overt process of eradicating the feminine in thought, speech and deed. Women in power has meant women in drag. A woman in power still looks and feels, to me, like a man in a wig. In a pantsuit, surrounded by moustachioed, balding bros, talking about deals and security and efficiency. Women in power even speak in drag—from politicians to news anchors. Imagine the existence of powerful jobs where men were coached, with absolute necessity, to pitch their voices higher, to giggle more and make sweet noises of agreement? Imagine that it’s still considered essential practice to do the opposite in 2017, in an attempt to help one gender “pass” as the other in order to approach power and basic credibility?
What will it be like, then, in another 20 years, when the drag act is good enough that women do fill those corner offices? Devastating. Because then women will have an even larger stake in supporting a system that was not designed for them at all; that ignores them at best, crushes them at worst, and, most importantly, does not seem to be serving the healthy interests of anyone.
All over the English-speaking world, there’s a current push to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Code like a girl! They promise, as if that will make it different. All I see is my black folder. “So where’s the push to get young men into CARE?” I ask when the STEM will-save-us-all model is proposed again and again. “The world seems broken in a way that will not be fixed by getting more women to work 60 hour weeks outside the home, or if someone with a vagina is giving the orders to re-re-invade Afghanistan.” Whenever I ask this, I get agreement. I get whole-hearted agreement. From men and women. From Uber drivers and bankers, medical researchers and coders, tradies and teachers. They all care about care. They know their care is suffering. The model we have where we are pitted against each other from pre-school in the joyless, high-pressured pursuit of jobs that require spending most of your life, yes, life, away from your loved ones each week in the company of strangers who are in competition with you—this is the promise of the corner office. I wouldn’t wish it on a man, and certainly don’t want it for my daughter.
If only a woman in power meant a woman truly empowered. If a female president could get her hands on the red button simply to say, “Send someone up from tech immediately to take this thing apart. There will be no more babies bombed to pander to nation states or corporate skulduggery.” That wouldn’t just be a “woman in power,” that would be a matriarchy, where matriarchal principles are applied instead of the ruthless, violent, reductive, lonely ones we’ve inherited. What does a matriarchy look like? How could I possibly know? Even my imagination is in drag. But for a start, I could offer a reverse of the corner office rules:
Show your colleagues you are really listening to them. Stop the pretence that you are not human, vulnerable, fallible. Co-operate, because human success is not a zero-sum equation. Take time to prepare food for each other—this is an ancient, human experience of bond-making. Figure out how we can all work much less overall, so we can spend time with loved ones. Acknowledge the existence of children in our culture. Spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on their care, play and learning. Pay attention to beauty, encourage its creation. Dismantle systems that do not lead to human flourishing.
I no longer believe, like I did in 1997, that the patriarchy can be changed by more women lending their lives in support of out-dated systems designed to exploit, belittle and exclude them and their children. The powerful positions I want to see more women in are positions of protest. I want to see women who are visibly pursuing powerful alternatives. I want to see women acknowledge that we are powerfully exhausted, that it has not been a fair fight, and that power currently sits on a throne of toxic masculinity that is better off being discarded altogether than slightly adjusted to accommodate a woman’s frame. I want to see women who are following intuitive, radiant ways of being and encouraging others to do the same. Some of those others will be men, and that’s the kind of woman I also want in power now. A real 21st century man. A man with a creative, flourishing heart. A man who uses his inherited patriarchal clout to realise the power of the feminine for us all.