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Women and Power

“Sex,” said an English historian, “is woman’s only path to power.” As women’s options increase, that’s not much more true than, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” But it is likely that, as long as power is seen by some women as a peculiarly male attribute which only men can confer, they will go right on confusing sex with power.

It’s no accident that politicians have to devote less time and trouble to the seduction of women than anyone, possibly including male movie stars. And it’s no accident that political conventions, not to mention White House workers of almost any rank, are surrounded by dozens of otherwise well-bred girls who are strangely willing.

As Arthur Koestler wrote, quoting a European woman who was interested only in important men, “It’s like going to bed with history.”

The power-through-men theory can produce very constructive marriages and good partnerships. One of the best examples is Clementine Churchill, who simply made a decision when she married young Winston, not yet a leader of any kind: she would devote herself to him totally, to the exclusion of any separate life of her own, and chances of the couple’s success in the world would depend totally on his tastes and decisions. Mrs. Leland Hayward, an adopted New Yorker who was married to Sir Winston’s son, the late Randolph Churchill, believes that this investment of time and loyalty had a lot to do with Churchill’s later power and success.

“Clemmie never did many of the things that other wives enjoyed—dinner parties, going out with her own friends; anything—unless it happened to be part of her husband’s life, too. His friends were hers, his enemies were her enemies. I think that unquestioning support did a lot for him, especially during the middle years when his career seemed to be over. I wonder about a man like Duff Cooper [a diplomat and a wartime Cabinet officer]. He was very intelligent, very talented. His wife was a good wife, but she wasn’t interested in politics, and so tended to have her own dinner parties and activities. Would he have been more of a force had his wife been like Clemmie? I don’t know; it seems possible.”

But, as Mrs. Hayward also observed, this kind of devotion doesn’t always get rewarded these days. “Too many first wives,” she said, “find themselves exchanged for younger ones when the lean years are over.”

Certainly, the number of divorces right out of medical school, with men no longer interested in the girls who worked to help put them through, has become a kind of joke around colleges. Very few women find themselves married to a man of potential power, much less greatness, whether they can recognize it or not. But this kind of partnership is still possible, and may contribute to the rise of a powerful man.

Whether out of love and devotion or cynicism and necessity, the truth is that most women will have to exercise their much-denied but very much alive instincts for power through men for a while yet, at least until the generation now in college starts taking over the control centers. Young girls are refusing to be emotionally blackmailed into domesticity in the same way that boys no longer fall for the real-men-go-out-and-fight tradition, but the change will take a long time.

Because women don’t have power in this country or this city except as consumers. (Which is exactly parallel to a voter’s power to run Washington. There is a choice between candidates, or among brand names, but very little influence on what’s presented for that choice.) Or as a nuisance. (Large numbers can occasionally make enough noise so that men act just so the noise will stop.) The myth of economic Momism that grew up in the ’50s—based on women’s new consumer power, and the rise of Madison Avenue—is, when it comes to real power and control, just that: a myth. Women make, have, and inherit a great deal less money, and what they do have (even the greatly exaggerated number of rich widows) is usually controlled by men. They do very poorly at getting into the knowledge elite. (Nine per cent of professors are women; six per cent of doctors, much less than in so-called underdeveloped countries; three per cent of all lawyers; and one per cent of engineers. Professional schools habitually discourage women, and so do most of the teachers and career advisors they meet along the way.) Of the income elite, only five per cent of all people receiving $10,000 a year or more are women, and that includes the famous rich widows.

Of the prestige elite as taken from Who’s Who in America, they are six per cent. Of the business power elite (executives of corporations and the like), they are four per cent. And when it comes to elected officials, judges, and so forth, the percentage is almost nil.

Perhaps if women had more encouragement, more opportunity to gain power on their own, there would be less of the bitterness and hypocrisy that comes from using men for subversive ends. If society stopped telling girls that men can and should hand them their total identity on a silver platter, wives wouldn’t be so resentful when it didn’t happen. And ambitious women could relax, and look for pleasure instead of power in bed.

Men ought to encourage the idea. It might take a load off all of us.


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