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Women and Power

“As Jacqueline Kennedy was quoted in a New York newspaper profile, ‘There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed’”

From the December 23, 1968 issue of New York Magazine.

Toward the end of Gore Vidal’s gossipy, underrated novel, Washington, D.C., a fictional girl named Elizabeth Watress meets President Truman at a Democratic Convention. She is tall, beautiful and well-bred. (In fact, her whispery voice, a divorced father who “played polo and drank heavily,” a public manner “simulating fear and delight in equal proportions,” and her eventual marriage to a handsome young Presidential-hopeful have led a lot of people to think she is based on Jacqueline Bouvier.) So it surprises Clay Overbury, her eventual husband, when she gazes after little homespun Harry Truman with whom she has just shaken hands, and exclaims, “‘He looks so sexy!’”

“‘Sexy? Good God, you are crazy. That’s the President.’”

“‘And that’s what I meant,’ said Elizabeth evenly, and Clay laughed. Not many girls were so honest.”

If Harry Truman had pursued this advantage (he didn’t; even Gore Vidal doesn’t go that far), he certainly would have known that it wasn’t his beautiful soul and/or body that attracted her. Men wise in the ways of power understand its sexual uses as well. But there are a lot of men, and a surprising number of women, who believe the sexual segregationist argument that women aren’t interested in power at all; that something in their genes makes them prefer to be ordered about. While this is true of individual women—and some individual men: think of all those who seek out domineering wives or job hierarchies to take orders from—it turns out to be no more fundamentally true than all the other past myths: that women enjoyed sex less than men, for instance, or that Negroes were dependent creatures who didn’t want power either.

A century ago when Henry Adams wrote Democracy, still the only truthful novel about American politics, he understood that women wanted power, and had quite good instincts for using it. But objective truth and social truth are two different things. As a shy pretty Barnard girl explained, surprised to find herself braving police cordons outside a Columbia building, “I guess I’m just finding out that women are people.”

New York is probably one of the better places to discover it. Girls come here, after all, for somewhat the same reason that Negroes and homosexuals do: to escape the roles dictated by their background and Conventional Wisdom, and discover what they can do on their own. Frequently, it turns out that they, too, want to see tangible and intangible proofs that they make a difference in the world, that they are unique and valuable people. Power may be a dirty word, especially among New-Left-through-Hippies who fear that it must be manipulative and bad. (Though they have no double standard. Power is bad for anyone, male or female, and “manipulative” is the worst word in the New Left lexicon.) But vitality and a desire to change things are its ingredients, and the under-thirty generation has those in better supply than anyone else. They may not call it “power,” but they are certainly seeking to take control away from the Establishment.

Nobody seems to be denying the biological differences, not the Barnard girl, nor those few women in New York who already wield some power. (“You lose interest in everything else for a month or so before childbirth, and several months after,” explained a former State Department official, now a political science professor. “Nature takes care of that. But the women I see who continue that singlemindedness year after year because they think they ought to—they end up being a burden to the child.”) It’s just that the difference is less all-pervasive than it was in the under-populated day when women had to have a lot of children (and spend all their time running a complicated household) if a few were to survive.

Now, motherhood, like sex, dominates a woman’s life only by its absence; nothing else may go very well without it, but once that basic need is being fulfilled, there’s still a lot of life and interest with no place to go.

But the fact is, even in New York, that the great majority of women don’t have the training or opportunity or courage to get and use power on their own. Probably, they’ve been brought up to believe that such ambitions weren’t feminine. (And if any group is told its limitations long enough, pretty soon they turn out to be true.) Those who hold jobs of any influence—unless they’re totally concerned with makeup, clothes, cooking, and the like, and have no men in the hierarchy under them—are eventually gossiped about as pushy and masculine even now. (“What can I do?” said an unmarried representative of a fashion house who is often thought to be a lesbian. “I can’t sleep with every man who thinks that just to disprove it.”) It’s the same kind of emotional blackmail that used to keep men out of the arts, and push them into various forms of social violence—hunting, street fights, sports and wars—whether they liked it or not.


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