Women and power: Is there a more incendiary combination of words in the English language? Drinking and driving? Teenagers and sex? A woman can never be too rich or too thin, but until very, very recently, she could be too powerful, for which—if she wasn't smart enough to camouflage herself—she generally paid the price. Sometimes she got burned at the stake. Sometimes she got run out of town. Sometimes she simply got sexualized, which has been the easiest way to neutralize, if not destroy, an accomplished woman.
Of course, women have long exercised influence behind the scenes. A few thousand years ago this drove Aristotle to distraction: "What difference does it make whether women rule or the rulers are ruled by women? The result is the same." Especially on the domestic front, women are acknowledged to be experts at a tensile brand of quiet authority: The old adage has it that an American woman rises to a crisis, but that a Frenchwoman sees to it that a crisis never arises. And no one with a mother can deny that she wields—without lifting a finger and by virtue of her sheer existence—an outsize, open-ended, irrevocable influence on a life.
For the most part, though, history acknowledges a different, more disarming brand of power: a woman's ability to unmake a man. In a first-century B.C. marriage contract, a bride promised to be faithful and affectionate. She also vowed not to add love potions to her husband's food or drink. For the several thousands of years before they became firefighters and physicians, women were sirens, enchantresses, snares. At times it seems as if female powerlessness is male self-preservation in disguise. And for millennia, this has made for a zero-sum game: A woman's intelligence was a man's deception.
The accepted wisdom is that women have made the longest strides toward independence, toward authority and opportunity, in periods of great dislocation. If that is so, we must be living in the most fractured, befuddled, out-of-joint age ever, as we live—for the first time—in a world of female taxi drivers and Supreme Court justices, fighter pilots and four-star generals. For the second time we have a woman in the White House who might just as well have landed there on her own. We even live in an age when what have traditionally been considered female traits—strong communication skills, a collaborative instinct, a gift for juggling, emotional intelligence—are hailed as desirable leadership qualities. For a few thousand years women had no history. Marriage was our calling, and meekness our virtue. Over the last century, in stuttering succession, we have gained a voice, a vote, a room, a playing field of our own. Decorously or defiantly, we now approach what surely qualifies as the final frontier.
Which raises a question of the hour. Is it possible for a woman to wield power without reference to her gender? Can she prove herself competent, effective, articulate without being dismissed as either a bitch or a bimbo, until recently her only career choices? Power has for so long been a male construct that it distorted the shape of the first women who tried it on, only to find themselves in a sort of straitjacket. Powerful women were caricatures of their male colleagues. They had no feelings. They didn't like to talk about shoes. No wonder early feminists hoped the concept of power would vanish entirely when women ran the world.
Instead it seems that women have begun to transform, to broaden and deepen, the whole idea of power. A woman no longer has to leave off being a woman to embrace it. (Ego trips are not a male preserve.) Nor does anyone have to sit in the vicinity of a corner office; power has many addresses. One can wield it without a suit and tie, just as one can do so without a paycheck, a portfolio, a job. Having been for so many years defined by our bodies, we have no particular desire to be defined by our business cards.
Across the board, we're separating success from purpose, focusing less on title, career, status, more on accomplishment, influence, responsibility to ourselves and to our world. Those are not only equal-opportunity employers but also self-employers. They're bestowed from the bottom up rather than from the top down. They can't be forcibly removed. As the feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun defined it, "Power is the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter." That is no less true on the playground than at the Pentagon. At issue are self-mastery and self-esteem rather than title and totem pole; we're overhauling the very concepts of influence, leadership, clout, control. There may be no single better definition of power.
— Stacy Schiff (Find out where Stacy discovers power in her own life)