What if women ruled the world?
Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers says it could happen
Myers on Sen. Clinton’s campaign
Feb. 25: TODAY’s Matt Lauer speaks with former President Clinton’s press secretary Dee Dee Myers about Hillary Clinton's campaign.
updated 8:44 a.m. CT, Mon., Feb. 25, 2008
If women ruled the world, everything would change, according to former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Politics would be more collegial. Businesses would be more productive. And communities would be healthier. Empowering women would make the world a better place. Blending memoir, social history and a call to action, Myers challenges us to imagine a not-too-distant future in which increasing numbers of women reach the top ranks of politics, business, science and academia. Here's an excerpt from “Why Women Should Rule the World”:
Women should rule the world.
That was it, the answer to my frustration and growing political alienation. It seemed so simple, so obvious. Women!
If we were in charge, things might actually change. Instead of posturing, we’d have cooperation. Instead of gridlock, we’d have progress. Instead of a shouting match, we’d have a conversation. A very long conversation. But a conversation nonetheless. Everyone would just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
Or would they? What would it be like if women ruled the world, I began to wonder?
Would anything really change? Would the world be a better place? My hunch was that more women in public life would, in fact, make things better.
After all, more women already have.
It’s easy (and perhaps a bit facile) to argue that men haven’t done such a great job. The last century was the bloodiest in human history, and so far, this one has been a tale of war, terrorism, religious extremism, abject poverty, and disease. I’m not saying it’s all men’s fault. But let’s just say, they’ve been in charge, and it doesn’t seem we’re much closer to finding answers to these profound and vexing problems.
On the other hand, if there are societies where women have truly ruled, they are few and far between. For virtually all of history, woman has played a supporting role to man’s, well, leading man. A comprehensive review of encyclopedia entries published in the early 1900s included only 850 women, though it covered a span of nearly 2,000 years. And the queens, politicians, mothers, wives, mistresses, beauties, religious figures, and women of “tragic fate” were notable mostly for their relationships with men.
I have always believed that women could rule the world. As far back as I can remember, it has seemed obvious to me that women were, in fact, every bit as qualified as men in most endeavors, and better than them at many. Of course, the corollary — that men are better than women at some things — also seemed obvious, at least after the sixth grade. Before that, I thought I could do anything any boy could do. I was a good student and a good athlete, and I didn’t have much trouble keeping up with boys in the classroom or on the playground. But then Doug, another sixth grader at Wiley Canyon Elementary School in California, challenged my friend Peggy and me to a game of two-on-one basketball, first side to ten would win. He beat us 10-0.
I realized then that athletic boys are better basketball players than most girls, even the ones like Peggy and me who spent a fair amount of time shooting hoops. While I confess this was a bit disappointing at the time, I certainly didn’t think that boys were better at everything, or even most things. That idea simply never occurred to me.
Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by strong women. My mother, a product of her generation, left college after two years to marry my father, a young Navy pilot.
Within a few years, she had three little girls and a husband who was often at sea. With Castro’s ascent in Cuba, then the war in Vietnam, my dad was gone for weeks or even months at a time, and my mom was left to manage alone. One of my earliest memories is of helping my mom pack a little plastic Christmas tree, some cookies, and a few wrapped packages into a big box to send my dad, who was on a ship somewhere in Southeast Asia. But she never complained (at least not when my sisters and I were listening), and she never seemed overwhelmed by all that she had to do. The Navy, like all branches of the military, would collapse without the community of able women (and now a lot of men) who manage things stateside, while their husbands (and now some wives) are away. My mother and her network of Navy wives helped each other tend to sick children, unstop kitchen sinks, and deal with worrisome news from the war raging half a world away.
After my father left the Navy, we moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles, and my mom eventually earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees, then went to work, first as a counselor at a local college, then as an executive at the phone company. She was good at what she did, rose quickly in her various jobs, and got a lot of satisfaction from her professional accomplishments. I didn’t always like it when my mom was gone, but I never doubted that what she was doing was important. At the time, most of the mothers in my neighborhood stayed home, so what my mom was doing was unusual. But my dad was supportive, and my sisters and I were more proud than displaced — even when we had to eat dry macaroni and overcooked hot dogs every time it was my sister Betsy’s turn to make dinner. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college and have a career — as well as a family — of my own. Both my parents, but especially my mother, encouraged me and led me to believe that it was possible.
My father’s mother, Grandma Bernadette, also shaped my ideas about what women could accomplish, in ways I think she never would have imagined. Her husband — my grandfather — died of congestive heart failure (he’d had rheumatic fever as a child) when he was just thirty-seven, leaving her with five children: my dad, who was eleven, and his four sisters, ages twelve to two.
My grandfather had owned a gas station on Main Street in Racine, Wisconsin, while my grandmother was busy raising the children and playing the organ at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. She hadn’t been very involved in the business — and it certainly wasn’t a business where one expected to find women in 1946. Because of his heart condition, my grandfather didn’t have any life insurance, but his business was insured. So when he died — as my grandmother liked to tell it — the insurance men came to her house, suggested she sell it and the gas station, and move with her children into the Catholic orphanage across town. She told them to get the hell off her porch and never come back. She kept the station and managed the day- to-day operations until she sold it more than thirty years later.
She raised five children, put them all through college, and still found time to play the organ at Mass every weekday and five times on Sunday. While she clearly missed things about being married — and having a father for her children — she never really dated or considered marrying again. She would sometimes say she never found the right fellow, but her daughters believe that she simply liked being the boss.
So my grandmother — by fate, rather than design — was a small business owner and single mom long before women routinely did either, let alone both. And I’ve often wondered: What would have happened to another family if the mother had died and left the father with five young children? How many men could have managed to run the business, raise the kids, and volunteer at church six days a week, all by themselves?
In addition to my mother and grandmother, I grew up surrounded by accomplished women. The principal of my elementary school. My guidance counselor in high school. My father’s sisters. My friends’ mothers, and my mother’s friends. It seemed to me that women were capable of doing just about anything. Not that they were always allowed to, of course. When I was in second grade (even before I learned that boys were better at basketball), our teacher asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. The kid next to me, Robert, drew himself as a TV repairman. While his choice of career may not have thrilled his parents, it struck me hard. Wow, I thought. He can be anything. I have to be a teacher, or a nurse, or a nun. I drew myself as a teacher.
Happily, the years since I finished the second grade have seen an exponential increase in options. Girls can now aspire to be elementary school teachers or university presidents; nurses or doctors; nuns or — in many denominations — priests or ministers or rabbis. Girls and boys can be engineers, entrepreneurs, or astronauts. They can repair televisions or appear on them as actors or journalists. They can build homes or stay home with the kids.
And they can be press secretary to the president of the United States, as I was.
When I first started working in politics, as a junior aide on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, it never occurred to me that I would one day work in the White House. There were plenty of women among the volunteers who stuffed envelopes and walked precincts. But there were fewer and fewer on each successive level of influence and access. In the subsequent years, the numbers increased, as I moved from job to job — in the California state legislature, for the mayor of Los Angeles, on the gubernatorial campaigns of Tom Bradley and Dianne Feinstein, and on the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. But electoral politics was still very much a white boys’ club.
When I joined Bill Clinton’s start-up presidential campaign in 1991, I was confident that women would play an ever more important role, but I never gave a minute’s thought to what would happen if we won. When we did — and I became the first woman to serve as White House press secretary — it changed my life. But it didn’t change the world. And I came to believe that it would take more women — lots more women — to do that.
After I left the White House, I kept a foothold in the business of American politics: as a talk-show host, analyst, commentator, speechmaker, and occasional writer. I was no longer a practitioner, but I was still a partisan, a Democrat, a blue-stater through and through. And I enjoyed the give-and-take of the political debate. But over the years, something changed, and I found myself more and more frustrated by the bitterness that now gripped the capital. Increasingly, it seemed, both sides were more interested in winning the argument than solving the problem. And the result was gridlock, polarization, and cynicism.
Surely there was another way, a better way. And I started to think about how we might move from a culture of confrontation to one of consensus, from I-win-you-lose to win-win. Was anyone in Washington practicing what I was only preaching? Were there people talking and listening to each other? Were they working together? Were they treating each other with respect and trying to see the world through each other’s eyes? And I realized that, yes, there were some. And one of the places it seemed to be happening on a regular basis was among the women in the U.S. Senate.
Now, granted it’s still a relatively small group: sixteen women. And it’s easier to find comity among sixteen than among 100 or 535 or 300 million. But something seemed to be happening there. On paper, the women didn’t have that much in common. They were liberal and conservative. They came from small states and big ones, both coasts and the middle. Several were single; others were mothers and grandmothers. They had different interests, different agendas, and different strengths. And yet. They had managed to transcend the bitter partisanship that has infected much of Congress, and forged not just political alliances on issues where they agreed — but genuine friendships.
“We relate on a personal level, because every one of us has had to overcome the obstacles of people underestimating us and people trivializing us,” said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas. “We’re good friends.”
The ideologically diverse group has never formed an official caucus, but in recent years, they’ve worked together on a variety of issues, including more access to individual retirement accounts for homemakers, more funds for home health care and breast cancer research, and a resolution condemning the ruling military junta in Burma for its brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators. They have also reached out to other women leaders around the world. A few years ago, they met with women leaders from Northern Ireland, who were working to build a more civil society in that war-torn country; the Irish women came away inspired.
“My experience has been that women tend to be better at working across the aisles and are more pragmatic and results oriented,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.
While sixteen women in the Senate does not an airtight argument make, it certainly reinforced my own prejudices. Women do seem more interested in consensus. They do seem less consumed by the constant who’s-up-and-who’s-down score-keeping aspect of the political game. They do seem more willing to listen to other people’s opinions. That’s not to say that all women fit this model; they don’t. But wouldn’t increasing the number of women in Congress change the culture? Wouldn’t it make the elusive search for common ground more fruitful? Wouldn’t it make the political process more productive?
Wouldn’t it? Yes, I thought; it would. In fact, if there were more women in positions of power, not just in Congress, but across the United States and around the world, lots of things would be better. Not perfect. But better. We’d have more representative government; a stronger economy; and a healthier and more sustainable planet. We’d be better able to resolve conflicts and keep the peace. We’d have stronger families.
And so I set out to write this book: Why Women Should Rule the World.
I knew my own story, as political operative — and as a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a friend. But I needed more. So I talked to friends and read articles, studies, and books. I interviewed prominent and successful women, from primatologist Jane Goodall and Senator Dianne Feinstein, to activist and skin care entrepreneur Anita Roddick and Nobel Prize laureate environmental activist Wangari Maathai. I explored the growing body of scientific literature on the topic.
When I actually sat down to explore the argument, however, I realized it was going to be harder than I thought. Women haven’t been able to carve out much space on the top floors of any endeavor, in any country or culture in the history of the world. Without a doubt, they’ve made tremendous progress in the past three decades, but the numbers are still small.
In the United States, millions more women than men vote, and we have a female Speaker of the House for the first time in history. Still, women make up only 16 percent of the U.S. Senate, 16 percent of the House, and not quite 24 percent of state legislators. Only eight of the nation’s fifty governors are women. And while a woman has finally made a serious run, no woman has ever been elected president. Around the world, there is an increasing — if still small — number of women serving as heads of state or heads of government; but the small numbers make it hard to predict just how things would change if in every region of the world, every level of government was half women.
Ditto business. Women make the vast majority of consumer decisions in this country — by many accounts, more than 80 percent. But we still don’t have enough influence at the top of the corporations that make and sell those goods and services. True, women now fill about half of all managerial positions, but among Fortune 500 companies, women account for only 16 percent of corporate officers, 5 percent of top earners — and an anemic 2 percent of CEOs. Is it really possible to know how the world would change if women had their names on half the doors to the executive suites?
The pattern repeats and repeats. Women make up half of law school graduates and roughly a third of all lawyers. But they account for only 15 percent of partners in law firms or federal judges, and 10 percent of law school deans or general counsels at Fortune 500 companies. Women make up nearly half of medical school graduates — but only a quarter of doctors and 10 percent of the deans of medical schools. They are 20 percent of university presidents, but still woefully underrepresented in tenure-track teaching positions, especially in math, science, and engineering. How would a giant increase in the number of women at all levels change law, medicine, and academia?
These were among the questions that I wanted to explore.
Of course, the questions run deeper than the statistics that quantify women’s achievements — or the lack thereof. In the past couple of decades, there has been a mountain of research and commentary on the relationship between gender and just about everything — from leadership style, to ethics, to sex drive. And as the volume of information has grown, so too has the volume of the debate about what it means. Are the alleged differences real? Which, if any, are innate? Which are the result of socialization? And how do they affect expectations about gender roles?
As I began looking into questions like these, I was struck by the ferocity of the debate that still surrounds the “nature versus nurture” question. On the nature side, an eclectic group of scientists, philosophers, polemicists, parents, and religious traditionalists believe that sex roles are genetically, even divinely, determined. According to this view, women are nurturers, designed to have and raise the babies, while men are programmed to compete in the world and support their families.
The arguments are equally passionate on the other side, where a committed assortment of psychologists, sociologists, feminists, parents, and progressives argue that nurture is the root cause of behavioral differences between men and women. While the stack of studies is getting bigger, they claim that the evidence linking biology and behavior is tenuous; culture, they say, is the culprit. From infancy, boys are expected and encouraged to behave one way, girls another. And to see it any other way is to open the door to the kind of biology-as-destiny limitations that have held women back for thousands of years. If women are more nurturing, if they’re better at relationships, isn’t it also possible that men are better at, say, math or science? And wouldn’t that then justify the dearth of opportunities for women in those fields?
These, too, became questions I wanted to explore.
I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a psychologist, or a biologist, or a political theoretician. But as I began this book, I wanted to try to paint a picture, in laymen’s — or should I say laywomen’s? — terms, of what changes when there are more women in positions of power and authority across public life. And I hoped — and let’s be honest, expected — the results would make it obvious that the influence of women has been an overwhelmingly positive thing. Not because women are the same as men, but because of the many ways they are different.
At the same time, I realized that an honest look at the upsides of empowering women would also require me to look at the obstacles, from the big cultural, historical, and biological forces, to the challenge of balancing work and family and the internal barriers that keep women from being all that they can be.
This book is not an attack on men. It’s not meant to demean or marginalize them. After all, my father is a man. I’m married to a man. I gave birth to a baby man. I think men have done wonderful things, from inventing the wheel (though it may have been a woman’s idea, but somehow a man got credit), to walking on the moon. Truly, the list of man’s (and I don’t mean “mankind’s”) accomplishments is so long and so profound that it seems silly to try to quantify it. But that doesn’t mean the world wouldn’t be better if there were more women in public life. If women had more power, not just in the United States, but around the globe. If women had the same access to education and economic resources and health care. If women had equal rights and equal opportunities. If there were more women in boardrooms, and classrooms, and operating rooms and courtrooms. If women’s ideas and opinions and life experiences were accorded the same weight as men’s. If girls were as valued as boys.
If women ruled the world.
Excerpted from "Why Women Should Rule the World," by Dee Dee Myers. © 2008 Dee Dee Myers. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.