Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Women and Power: Advice from the Ape-World.

I think the way political power is handed out these days almost guarantees that you’ll get the wrong sort of person for the job. Guiding a society is an onerous responsibility, it has nothing to do with personal ‘achievement’, you need to be old enough to have got that out of your system. The person or people offered the job need to be chosen by a broad church of people who know the candidates well, and who themselves know what it takes to govern a country. It is a specialist job like any other; you wouldn’t appoint a brain surgeon through a popular vote. What we have is practically the worst system imaginable, where leaders are chosen from an undignified scramble of candidates who desperately want the job, and who are chosen largely by people (you and I) who know very little of what it takes to govern a country, and with very little knowledge of the candidates. This is what we call Democracy, on which the west prides itself so much, and which much of the rest of the world scorns – in many ways, rightly.

But if you do want to take part in this undignified scramble, and you are female, here is some advice by Frans de Waal in New Scientist magazine, entitled ‘Midnight Tips for the Clinton Camp’. The author has spent many years observing chimpanzees, and after telling us about their hierarchies, she continues:

'Here are three lessons for alpha females in human politics. First, age helps a female more than a male. Since physical strength and stamina are largely irrelevant in the female, becoming older, experienced and better connected offers an advantage. I have never seen a middle-aged female at the top of a hierarchy if older females were present. In human politics, too, a typical alpha female is post-reproductive, such as Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.

‘Second, since males respect power more than age or personality, the alpha female must head a large coalition to handle them effectively. Tight control of her political party might provide this in human politics, but it is unlikely any female could have a stable top role without support from her sex. This can only be secured by being sexually non-threatening and championing female causes.

And third, an alpha female needs to rise above the parties. Older female primates often head large families, and have a natural tendency to be loyal and committed to their kin. The effective alpha female needs to be able to reach beyond her inner circle, build bridges, groom rivals, all of which comes harder to females than males, because males lead more opportunistic political lives and therefore have shorter memories for perceived slights. So impartiality may be the greatest challenge for any female politician.

That the rules of the game are different for both sexes seems ‘unfair’, but is simply how evolution works. Male reproductive success depends on access to females, and one way to achieve this is to hold power over other males. A connection between sex and power is well-known in human politics. For females, things don’t work the same for the simple reason that increased access to mates doesn’t help them reproduce one bit. Instead of serving reproduction via sex, female power serves reproduction via access to resources.

This is important, too, which is why an interest in power is not limited to male primates. Yet the reasons are not the same, and the interplay with sex is so different that advising Clinton to act more ‘feminine’ is misguided. When Clinton shed one tear during an interview, everyone was moved and the media said that finally we saw the real person behind the candidate. But when she went on to shed more tears during a second interview, the headline read: “Again?”, while her opponents countered that Barack Obama “doesn’t go on television and have crying fits.”

Another miscalculation, this time in her favour, came when sexist hecklers in New Hampshire shouted at Clinton: “Iron my shirt! Iron my shirt!” which galvanised the female vote in her favour. Of the three lessons, then, my money says any alpha female’s ticket to success is solidarity with her own gender.


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10 comments:

Twilight said...

Interesting DR.

I've just been reading about a new flap caused by another "alpha female", Geraldine Ferraro a former New York Representative

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/11/obama-adviser-says-clinton-must-repudiate-backers-comments/

She commented that if Barack Obama was female he would not be where is is today (presumably if he were a woman with same experience and history)

I agree with her 100%.

She also unwisely said that if he were a white man he would not be in this position, which I don't see as clearly being the case.

Oh dear! Race rears its ugly head again.

More opening of mouth and inserting foot.

Alpha women sticking together can sometimes pose problems.

Anonymous said...

I think its so sad that this race is turning into shallow identity politics rather than being about IDEAS.

Anonymous said...

Geraldine Ferraro was also the democratic Vice Presidential running mate of Walter Mondale in 1984. So she was the first woman to run for such a high office in the government.

While it may have been a politically stupid thing for Geraldine Ferraro to say, it doesn't make it any less true. Do you think O.J. Simpson would have gotten away with two brutal murders if he had been a white man with a predominantly black jury? I don't think so!

That the Obama campaign benefits from his blackness with the black community, garnering 80% of their vote, but it cannot be discussed is absurd. Nobody is bothered about talking about Clinton usually getting the women's vote.

While I agree that these should not be the reasons people support either candidate, race, like gender, is a factor and people should be able to discuss it without being called racists.

By Venus

Anonymous said...

Virtual reality is altering the dynamics of traditional provinces and motivations of the sexes. There are now millions of people who choose virtual power instead of enacting these games in real life.

Twilight said...

Yes Anon. I agree that race ought to be as valid a factor to discuss with impunity as gender, but it appears that in the USA it ain't.

I'm English, married to an American.
I've been puzzled about the way comedians and talk show hosts here have made fun about Georg W. Bush incessantly, going quite a bit further than would be the case in Britain I think (not that he doesn't deserve it). Currently Hillary Clinton is their whipping girl. I pointed out to my husband that we never ever see Barack Obama as the butt of their jokes, and his opinion is that it would be taboo because of race.

If that's the case and we eventually get a President Obama the comedians had better start lining up for jobs at Macdonalds!

Dharmaruci said...

I agree that people need to feel free to comment that Obama might not be where he is were he not black(ish). It's probably got a lot of truth in it.

But I don't think you can exclude comment on the possible motivation for saying it either. It's such a loaded issue, that if you say it right now and you are in the Clinton camp, people will rightly suspect your motivation.

Dharmaruci said...

Hey, let's have a bit less anonymity out there!

Anonymous said...

Oh, DR! To suggest that we, the cyberspace floaters, should give up our anonymity in this very unprivate era of Big Brother... Why, you're one of our last refuges! ;)

As for the topic, I happen to agree with Ferraro. Had Obama been white, I truly believe more black voters would have chosen Hillary. But...by the same token, I think more of the women would've chosen *him*! That is, provided all of the other factors remained at par--age, experience, platform, and overall charisma. How the final tallies would've come down thus far? That I'm not so sure of. But, probably with Hillary. Perceptually, a black male idealist is completely different than a white male idealist. And the US has had quite a crawful of the white version. So Obama's message would NOT be taken in the same context by the voters, without the color to spin it into something with a life all its own (enhanced by a nostalgic sense of history, I will point out). And Hillary is Hillary. She'd have taken more votes by non-white voters...but again, perception would be that even with all the youth and idealism, a white man is somehow more "authoritative", more "valid". So she'd have lost some of the women--the ones that are currently siding with her because she is a woman, and the other guy is "just" a minority too.

A fiction book I once read had one character explaining to another how their government worked: "Every qualified citizen is entered into a lottery. Whoever is picked MUST accept--it's against the law not to! And then every personal asset of the citizen-elect is liquidated, an accounting recorded, and then added to the national treasury. That ensures that if the country is not better off than when the person began the job, they are personally ruined, too! And we certainly don't PAY them while they are in office--that would tempt them to slack! But if the country turns a profit, they will too."

Anonymous said...

The race thing is a strange one.
Until Obama ran, few people could have imagined a black candidate ever being taken seriously in the U.S, least of all African americans themselves, so convinced as they are of their blanket exclusion from the mainstream of power in the country.
Now, thanks I'm sure to the first earth shaking impulses of pluto in capricorn, it's as if we've stepped through a door into an alternate universe where being a black candidate apparently gives Obama some kind of unfair advantage over a WASP Hilary Clinton.
Bizarre.

Venus said...

Jesse Jackson was taken seriously as a presidential candidate by Americans, especially African Americans! In 1984 he won five primary contests, and finished in third place. He won eleven primary contests in 1988, was the front runner for a while, and came in second only to Michael Dukakis, who won the nomination.

Interestingly, it was Bill Clinton's reference to Jesse Jackson's wins in South Carolina to a reporter that ignited the first outcry by the Obama campaign and their media surrogates that the issue of race had been brought into the the campaign by Bill Clinton.

But, ah yes, timing or karma or astrological cycles is almost everything!