Women and Power isn’t a series about women’s empowerment. It’s a series about women and their relationship to power — how they get it, how they lose it, how they wield it, what they sacrifice for it, and, ultimately, what they hope power will help them achieve.
“You have power when so many women are powerless!” said a sexual-assault survivor as she confronted senator Jeff Flake. The woman who spoke these words was, at that moment, pinning him into the corner of an elevator. He looked stricken and ashamed, like a boy caught with one foot out the bedroom window. Maria Gallagher’s fury dominated the space as she commanded Senator Jeff Flake, “Look at me when I am talking to you!” And when the story gets told, she, and not Flake, will be remembered more as the hero who never wavered and who might have diverted the course of history. So, judging from the videotape alone, who in that situation has power?
I bring this up not to deny the general thesis that men have power and many women are powerless. If you doubt it, consult the lectures of the spectacularly florid feminist-classicist Mary Beard, who has helpfully chronicled how, from the start of recorded history, silencing females was a critical rite of passage for men (Jupiter turns Io into a cow; Echo can only echo; when Philomela is raped, her tongue is cut out to keep her quiet). I bring up the confrontation with Flake to show that even in isolated moments when women do wield power, they have a hard time seeing it, because it’s so unfamiliar and uncomfortable. There is some irony in this political moment that when women have the collective power to fell titans of the patriarchy by the week, they are using that power to insist on their own powerlessness. When it comes to power, they — we — are chronically ambivalent.
Fellow women, I bet you can easily call up examples from your own life of being offered a title or a raise or even a compliment from a superior and having it sit on you like a tight itchy shirt. I know I can: When I recently joined a podcast, I was told one day that I would be a host. On the eve of the announcement, I panicked. How about a reporter? Correspondent? Please! Anything but host! Mind you, I had been a print journalist for 20 years at this point, but all I could see were the audio skills I still lacked. I know many neurotic men, and insecure men, but I can’t think of a single one who, when presented with the glass slipper, wouldn’t have a ready story for himself about why, despite all his doubts, it really is a good fit.
I suppose the obvious explanation for our ambivalence is that we are so harshly punished for behaving any other way. Studies of hiring bias in dozens of professions (musicians, artists, pilots, biologists, bankers) have shown that people — men and women alike — judge women gunning for power as somehow diseased. In one of the most depressing of these reports, Madeline Heilman at New York University gave out identical résumés for “Andrea” and “James,” saying only that these applicants were “rising stars” in their field. Andrea was judged as “downright uncivil,” Heilman wrote, although there was no information at all given about her personality. People merely bridled at the thought of what a woman must have done to be labeled a rising star.
There are a few forms of female power that don’t seem to violate anyone’s sense of norms: sex or beauty, the witchy power of the dispossessed (probably the one operating in that elevator). And then there is the most acceptable: wielding power in the service of others. No one bristles at, say, a mother storming into the principal’s office to demand a new teacher for her son, or a female head of HR fighting for her employees. But how unfair is it to be denied the right to be selfish?
There is another study of Heilman’s I find even more depressing. It involves an office party and a Xerox machine. Some colleagues are about to go to a party when, at the last minute, a junior colleague shows up in a panic over a broken Xerox machine. The automatic stapler isn’t working, and he needs to manually staple booklets due the next day. The women who went off to the party instead of stopping to help him were docked mercilessly by the research subjects, called “mean” or “unhelpful” or “unpleasant.” The men were not judged at all.
Lately, all my feminist rage and confusion over obstacles to power are focused on the Xerox dilemma: Are we women doomed to be “helpful” forever? Will we ever learn how to block out the needs of others to attend to our own dominance? Why does my husband find it so easy to leave his children three days a week and work in a different city? Why are men able to delude themselves into thinking those women on Pornhub are actually having fun? Why do so few women go to male prostitutes? Did Christine Blasey Ford really have to be that pleasant and obliging to be heard (though obviously even that didn’t work)? Will we ever learn to be selfish? Is selfishness a blessing or a curse? Can’t they find a male intern to do the damned stapling?
If I had to pick one thing that stuck with me about Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony, it was his inability to take in alternate views. He had in his head a fixed idea of himself and events and the law and could not fathom another perspective. My friend Dahlia Lithwick pointed out to me that Justice Elena Kagan sometimes writes her decisions in the second person, as an exercise in inhabiting a foreign mind-set, in empathy. After that testimony, it’s hard to imagine Kavanaugh doing the same.
Watching the hearings brought out my inner essentialist, which always feels like a dead end. To counter it, the weekend after, I did what I always do when I need encouragement: I read the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a feminist primatologist, or one of the other women scientists who challenge the male-friendly myths of our human origins. I am currently reading a new book called Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, by Angela Saini. I read all these books, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, Melissa Hines’s Brain Gender, and whatever might remind me that the proven biological differences between the genders barely amount to a standard deviation, that Darwin believed women were intellectually inferior, that women were not allowed into scientific societies until late into this century, that the maternal instinct is a myth and the patriarchy is a cultural creation, not a biological fact.
I’m not sure what I actually believe about biological differences between men and women: My sons do only play with cars and video games, and the girls I know are in fact deeply relational. But I read these books over and over, like a prayer, to try and drive the cultural poison out of my head. Because the fundamental truth is that in 2018 there is no earthly reason, biological or otherwise, why men should have more power than women.
In her lectures on women and power, Mary Beard proposes an elegant grammatical solution: Change power from a noun into a verb. Instead of a trait, or a possession, turn power into an act: Someone doesn’t “have” power; they “do” power. The advantage is to turn power into a baton that passes from hand to hand, a temporary action that comes and goes and doesn’t have to define you. The aim is to break our addiction to mystical qualities like “genius,” which we still associate almost entirely with men. The hope is that women can move past their ambivalence one act at a time; do a power on the senator in the elevator and call it what it is, revel in it.
Try it, ladybosses. Go through your day and chronicle all your small acts of power.
The most ostentatious display of power I ever witnessed happened at a restaurant. It was a hot summer evening, and I was eating dinner with a couple of friends. I was wearing a sundress and sandals, and I had carelessly let my sandal slip off my heel and dangle from my toe. A man in his 20s — I remember him as having his hair slicked back and wearing an expensive shirt — glided over to me and whispered very, very quietly, while smiling: “Could you please put your sandal back on? I can’t eat my dinner looking at the bottom of your foot.” I immediately obliged and spent the next ten years fantasizing about punching that oily snake in the face.
Do I wish for women to be this entitled, this free to subject total strangers to their whims? I do, or at least I wish for a critical mass of women to behave like this in public so we purge the cultural stereotype. And then I hope that phase passes. Maybe this is my delusion of gender, but deep in my heart I believe it’s better to liberally use the second person. There must be a way to have power, and be communal, to take other people along. This phase of winner take all that we’re in now isn’t leading us anywhere good. In the best of all worlds, everyone — men and women — stop for a minute on their way to the party and help the guy staple.
Women and Power is divided into four chapters that will be published throughout the week. The full list of stories is below — links will be added as new chapters are published.
*A version of this article appears in the October 15, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!