Saturday, 26 July 2008

powerful woman

well there's nothing much in the news today but dr condoleeza rice. of course a visit from an american secretary of state after so many years would be a huge deal, no matter who it was. but dr rice represents something more. she represents an ethnic minority made good, a black woman overcoming prejudice of various kinds. a woman who coped with structural and institutional systems that have made it difficult for people like her to achieve as she has.

we should celebrate her for her success. not only for what she represents (a woman of colour in power/with power), but also the skills, determination and talent she brings to the job. here is someone i'd like to be proud of, but somehow i'm not.

maybe it's because, in succeeding within that system, she has taken on some of the worst aspects of the system. she hasn't changed anything of note, rather she has moulded herself to fit into what is already there.

i guess i'm thinking back to the arguments of the christian women's temperance movement who argued that giving women the vote would increase the levels of morality (particularly around drinking laws), and were pretty successful with that argument at the time. ok, i see that there are a lot of issues with putting the burden of morality on women. it's totally unfair, leads to all sorts of misogyny. at its worst, that burden leads to women having operations to repair their lost virginity, or to purity balls.

and yet there is part of me that wants the end result of women being part of the political system to actually lead to better outcomes, fairer policies. not just for women, but overall. it should lead to some improvement in the way things are run. otherwise what's the point? if dr rice is going to put in place the same policies and facilitate the same excesses as the existing system does, then what is the point of having women in positions of power. if nothing changes, we may as well just leave it to the men.

i feel towards dr rice much as i do towards margaret thatcher or madeliene allbright (she of the "oh yes, we think the price is worth it" in response to hearing about the half a million iraqi children who died as a result of sanctions in the 1990's). these women are not the reason why i fight for equal opportunity, why i fight for change and the increasing involvement in decision-making.

on the other hand, i guess equality means that women have just as much right to cock-up as men do. they have just as much right to be heartless or corrupt or whatever other qualities bad male leaders have. maybe it's just me who's wrong, in expecting more.

13 comments:

Hugh said...

i guess i'm thinking back to the arguments of the christian women's temperance movement who argued that giving women the vote would increase the levels of morality (particularly around drinking laws), and were pretty successful with that argument at the time.

They were successful in that this argument was one of the main drivers for getting women the vote, at least in New Zealand. But they were unsuccessful in that women seemed, overall, no more interested in prohibition than men - women getting the vote didn't lead to victory in the next referendum on prohibition they way people like Tommy Taylor seemed to think it would.

Anna McM said...

I share your non-excitement at seeing women like Condaleeza Rice make good. They not only fail to do good, but in some cases actively do harm. Sometimes, a woman/person from a non-white ethnic group can be used to give a stamp of approval to something hideous. I'm thinking here of Alan Duff - by being a Maori attacking other Maori (for welfare dependency, family dysfunction, etc, in the 90s), he made it that little bit easier and more acceptable for the Pakeha majority to do it. Or Jenny Shipley pulling her mother of the nation crap to justify benefit cuts which were incredibly detrimental to women and their kids particularly. Grrrr.

ms poinsettia said...

I don't think women like Dr. Rice devalue the importance of having women in positions of power. I don't subscribe to the idea that women will be any better or more compassionate than men. I do however think they will protect their own interests and a lot of these will coincide with other women's interests - ability to control fertiliy, to earn equal pay, to have a family and a career (leaving aside the benefits of a world in which women are visibly in positions of power). In this way having women in higher positions of power will benefit all women in some ways. Of course, the same powerful women will make policy that will hurt some women but no more than a male politician would.

I guess I'm a pessimist - I anticipate that politicians will be self-interested and do whatever's best to get ahead.

Stephen said...

"on the other hand, i guess equality means that women have just as much right to cock-up as men do. they have just as much right to be heartless or corrupt or whatever other qualities bad male leaders have. maybe it's just me who's wrong, in expecting more."

Yup and yup - maybe i'm not quite up with the play, but wouldn't that assume some sort of strong intrinsic differences between women and men?

Anna McM said...

Interesting poing Stephen - can you clarify a bit futher? Are you thinking that to expect women in positions of power to behave differently from men is to assume some natural differences?

If I've understood you correctly, my response would be that it's not OK for anyone to behave like a dick in a position of power. It sets the bar too low to say that women have a right to behave just as badly as men. No one in their right mind would suggest the answer to domestic violence is women hitting men more to even up the stats. Everyone needs to behave ethically, not 'equally'.

The problem comes, I think, when people say things like 'Margaret Thatcher isn't a real woman - she's too horrible'. That draws on natural assumptions about women and men, and disqualifies people who don't meet the assumptions. Thatcher is, of course, a woman - just a particularly dreadful one.

The idea, I think, should be to convince all people in power, male and female, to behave ethically. The role of feminism and other progressive social movements, I believe, is debating and defining what 'ethical' means - and this is at least as important in my view as the actual gender composition of our leaders. I'd take a man with good feminist sensibilities over Thatcher any day!

stargazer said...

i guess so stephen. i was speaking as an activist i guess, in that when you agitate for change, you do so in the hope that the change will make a positive difference.

ms poinsettia, i don't know that dr rice, as a conservative, did actually make any difference to controlling fertility, although she may have in the other areas you mention. i really don't know enough about her career and achievements to be able to tell.

and i don't believe all politicians are self-interested!

Stephen said...

anna,

"Are you thinking that to expect women in positions of power to behave differently from men is to assume some natural differences?"

That is what I took from the post, and I think it's hard to argue that it meant something else. I think it's a bit much to expect women to behave differently purely as a response to what men are apparently doing in politics. However, I can see its utility purely as an example to the rest (i.e. 'aren't the women in parliament great, why can't the men be like them??), but at the same time don't see why it shouldn't be equally as expected of men too. Would require a bit of a buy-in by particular women.

"If I've understood you correctly, my response would be that it's not OK for anyone to behave like a dick in a position of power."

Absolutely. You should've replied to the poster (stargazer?).

On your third paragraph, I must say I really am tired of people homing in one aspect of a person's life, whether that be gender/sex, ethnicity, WHATEVER, as the blogger ZenTiger said somewhere:

needless to say, he’s a man
needless to say, he’s a muslim
needless to say, he’s a leftie
needless to say, he’s Irish
needless to say, he’s a liberal
needless to say, he’s National
needless to say, he’s white middle class male
needless to say, he’s an immigrant
needless to say, he’s homophobic
needless to say, he’s christian

and he is no doubt is representative of all of them.


A bit of a problem with Feminism is that it is called 'Feminism' - easily turns a lot of people off, regardless of how much it addresses gender issues in general, as well as examining power, and by extension, any of the other dichotomies that could be applied to the above list.

Hope that is adequate.

Heh, this seems appropriate:

"Being powerfull is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

- Margaret Thatcher

Anna McM said...

You're probably right, Stephen, that the name 'feminism' puts men off. I think that this is an ongoing challenge for feminists: how do we point out the benefits of better gender relations for everyone, and how do we convince the world at large that our vision for society would be better for men and women alike? Also, it's hard to say exactly where feminism ends and other progressive social movements begin - a lot of people I know have pro-feminist beliefs without actually identifying as feminists.

I note I also asked you to clarify your poing. Sorry about that. Poing is now clear.

Hugh said...

Anna, could it not be argued that Thatcher, for all that the policies she enacted were terrible, served as a visible sign to many young women who might otherwise have doubted themselves that they, too, could wield power in ways it is traditionally denied to them?

Also, it's hard to say exactly where feminism ends and other progressive social movements begin

Are you sure about that? I know of several right-wing women whose feminist credentials are fairly solid (given what has been said elsewhere about feminism being a broad church) but who otherwise are not at all progressive.

In other words, I don't think it's possible to see feminism as both a broad church and as part of a wider progressive spectrum of issues.

Anonymous said...

"Are you thinking that to expect women in positions of power to behave differently from men is to assume some natural differences?"

Call me whatever, but I don't see how expecting women to behave differently than men in power necessarily assumes some sort of natural difference between men and women.

Obviously, it can. But I guess when women also experience forms of discrimination or struggle that women seem to disproportionately deal with (e.g. childcare and career balance), there is the hope that other women who(slight jump, who are likely to have also experienced similar struggles) bear them in mind.

So the similarity is one of experience rather than "nature". Of course this then assumes women all face similar struggles. To a certain extent, we do, but there are numerous complicating factors.

Anna McM said...

That's a church too broad for me, I'm afraid. I know it's bad form to go about excluding some feminist-identifying women as non-feminist, but that's how I feel about so-called right wing feminists. They are, after all, only liberals in a new package. Advocating that women enjoy the same rights as men, without questioning the political and economic system which confers those rights, is intellectually feeble. There are certain issues I would likely agree and work with such women on (eg reproductive rights), but there's bugger all which women committed to individualism can offer women as a collective.

You may be right about Margaret Thatcher, Hugh (the Spice Girls cite her as an inspiration!), but I'd have to say that on balance she did women and everyone else for that matter more harm than good.

It's a pleasure debating with you, Hugh - it keeps me on my toes. Keep it coming!

And Anon, I have to concede your point. The only problem with the idea that women think certain things because of shared experiences is that it makes big assumptions about what women share, and tends to overlook our differences. This way of thinking is potentially as inflexible as the 'women's nature' argument.

Anonymous said...

For sure Anna, that's why I originally didn't want to open that (extremely worthwhile) can of worms here. I agree with you about "women's experience". That can be used to present one group of women's experience as universal and so ignore (more often than not) more marginalised groups of women.

Anyway, I guess that one's for another time when I have less deadlines. (Drat).

... Got to say I'm glad the Hand Mirror is around.

Anonymous said...

I think a better explanation might be that the system selects for certain characteristics, so when a woman gets through the existing system she will be very similar to the men who do.

Moz