The Muscle State

Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World By Marie C. Wilson, Viking Press, 256 pages, $24.95

Americans are currently living under the most stereotypically male leadership we have seen in decades, if not longer. The president is a parody of the swaggering, steely-eyed gunfighter; the vice president is the tightlipped CEO who kills small birds for fun; the attorney general is the moralizing preacher, lecturing his flock on what's good for them -- or else.

The public, living in fear of the terrorist threat, has accepted this return to Big Daddy government. And the Democrats, living in fear themselves, have responded by beefing up their own testosterone levels. That has been part of the appeal of John Kerry, an authentic war hero who not only radiates the manly qualities associated with "presidentialness" but also dresses up in leather and rides a Harley, plays hockey with professionals, and owns a gun.

Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager, was quoted recently as saying that Kerry is "what voters were looking for in this cycle. ... He's big, he's masculine, he's a serious man for a serious time." Echoing Jordan's assessment in a column headlined "The Politics of Manliness," conservative pundit George Will opined that "Democrats who are serious about the candidate's electability understand that seriousness requires a retreat from the feminization of politics." Feminized politics, Will explained, is overly obsessed with children. In short, we seem to have bipartisan agreement that in a time of crisis, only real men need apply for the big job.

This would not appear to be the most propitious time, then, to issue a call for female leadership. But that is exactly what longtime feminist Marie Wilson is doing in her new book. Wilson is president of the Ms. Foundation and the White House Project, a nonpartisan effort to get more women into leadership roles. But she is best known as the woman who in 1993 launched the Take Our Daughters to Work Day, a wildly successful idea that has changed how many parents view girls' possibilities.

The event became the first "girl" thing that boys ever wanted to do, Wilson proudly relates, for she was immediately confronted with demands that boys be included. But when she tried to develop a male equivalent, like a Take Our Sons Home Day or a program offering boys a glimpse of "women's work" in day-care centers, social services, and the like, the male reaction was eye opening. She reports that men told her that would punish their sons, and a sons' day never got off the ground.

Wilson's efforts to promote the acceptance of women in serious positions of leadership have been equally frustrating. When the White House Project screened TV spots before a diverse audience to see which ads were the most effective, the audience showed a favorable response to the male politicians the second their faces appeared. The female politicians stayed even or were dialed down before they said a word. And although most people surveyed in polls say they would be comfortable with a woman in the presidency or in other leadership positions, they say that most other people would put "more stock" in a man. These other people would put more trust in a man's ability to conduct foreign policy, handle law and order, and manage the economy, while women would rank higher in trustworthiness and honesty.

So what does this tell us, Wilson asks -- that character matters less in a leader than a degree in international relations? Geez, Louise!

Worse, females are as likely as males to assume that men are our natural leaders. Wilson understands that the barriers to female leadership are within as well as without, and she challenges women's self-defeating assumptions that men have, or appear to have, or should have, more ability, ambition, authority, and authenticity. This is more than we can say of the media, which reinforce this gender bias. In a study called "Who's Talking," Wilson's group analyzed guest appearances on the major public-affairs talk shows during the year 2000 and the first six months of 2001. Male "talking heads" outnumbered females by 9 to 1. In the month after September 11, men outnumbered women by 13 to 1. Women chaired all the Senate's three principal subcommittees on terrorism, yet none was seen or heard on a talk show in the weeks after 9-11. The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Nancy Pelosi, was not once invited to share her views. A similar review for several weeks in 2003 showed little change. Meet the Press had no woman on nine different Sundays. Maybe they were all home fixing Sunday dinner.

Wilson is a "difference feminist" who firmly believes that if women had more power, they would do things differently. This may not be true, but as Bella Abzug once said, there's only one way to find out: Let's try it. There is certainly ample evidence linking the percentage of women in a legislative body and the passage of laws benefiting women and children. And it is even more obvious that when women have little or no political power, things are very, very bad for most people. Alabama, for example, ranks dead last in the nation in the number of female elected officials. And -- surprise, surprise -- the state is near the bottom in most measures of quality of life, including income, education, women and children's health -- just like all those other underdeveloped places with all-male leadership.

Closing the Leadership Gap is more of a description and prescription than an analysis. This slender book doesn't seriously explore the reasons for the deep-rooted preference for male leadership, an effort that is necessary if we are to seriously challenge it. Nor does it offer a powerful new case for the need for female leadership, especially in a time of crisis. Why, for example, are humans the only mammalian species in which the female is not free to defend her offspring as she thinks best? There may be good reasons to believe that women, and mothers in particular, would be the fiercest, most capable defenders of homeland security, and the most likely to keep us out of dangerous imperial overreach.

The book could also make more of the truth that serious leadership has little or nothing to do with atavistic notions of masculinity. Great, transformational leaders can be short (Napoleon), frequently depressed (Lincoln), or even crippled (Roosevelt). They can be small, skinny people in funny clothes (Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh). They can even be women (Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher). Gandhi perhaps put it best: "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."

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