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GP Letter 25 November 2009: Women of Strong Will Uprooting Their Masters

Powerful Women. No week goes by without us stumbling on another list of the most powerful women in business, the most admired women on earth, the women who have secretly taken over New York, etc. Occasionally we take a peek at one of these lists, and we generally find the high flyers there to be supremely banal, one-dimensional individuals who have been drained by the journey upwards and are full of clichés.

Fortune, once a grand magazine that’s now no longer on any serious person’s list, has made a little business out of ginning up the 50 most powerful women in business each year and then staging a so-called summit or jibber jabber session with them. We’re happy to see that those anointed are magnificently overpaid just like their male counterparts.  Fortune has a blog to go along with the list, which both trivializes women executives and makes the magazine even more deeply lightweight.

The Iron Lady. These meaningless lists only serve to obscure the truly Amazonian women who have emerged over the last 50 years, seemingly everywhere on the globe. Plenty of women, quite often out of power, are the real article whose force of character changes the societies where they live. Scholarly essays here and there point to the emergence of substantial women leaders. Somehow it is the Iron Lady—Margaret Thatcher—who would seem to be the leader of the pack. Whether one likes her or not, she dominated England for 11 years, the longest serving British Prime Minister in the 20th century. All the men who have followed her pale by comparison, coming off weak and ineffectual. She attended Somerville, a women’s college at Oxford, where Indira Gandhi also got her schooling. One wonders if it is not a magic cauldron from which vibrant women emerge.

Breaking Up Medieval Strongholds. Women would appear to hold the key to toppling dictatorships that are infused with a medieval view of the world. We have said elsewhere that these veiled ladies are the soft underbelly of the Arab world, our best hope for bringing the tribes of the desert into the modern era. As women ever so gradually carve a place for themselves in nations throughout the Middle East, they threaten to undo the rigid, unproductive societies that endure there now. Some bright lights in our own government have encouraged their advancement.  Similarly, the biggest threat to the lackluster military leadership of Burma is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is imprisoned in her house but is such a vivid symbol of opposition that she is much better known outside the country than any of the junta that has so stunted the economy and starved thousands of the beleaguered citiznes to death, refusing foreign aid that was proffered during huge storms and dreadful floods. In Iran, amidst the recent ongoing series of protests against the regime, Neda Soltani, cut down by a sniper, became the mute but eloquent symbol around the world of this strike against the ayatollahs.

Blossoming in Foreign Pastures.  So many of the women who are changing the world only really blossom after they have taken root somewhere outside of their homeland. Tererai, about whom Nicolas Kristof of the Times writes, leaves her native Zimbabwe, taking along her 5 children, and manages to earn degrees at Oklahoma State, enduring starvation, poverty, and a worthless husband.  “Through all this blur of pressures, Tererai excelled at school, pursuing a PhD at Western Michigan University and writing a dissertation on AIDS prevention in Africa even as she began working for Heifer as a program evaluator. On top of all that, she was remarried, to Mark Trent, a plant pathologist she had met at Oklahoma State.”

As extraordinary is the Black Aphrodite, Ms. Yvette Jarvis from Brooklyn, who emigrated to Greece, having gotten a degree in psychology from Boston University. Modeling at first, she then entered show business, and finally in her forties became a councilwoman in Athens.

Another performer, emigrating from China, has attained world renown by practicing her art in America. Wu Man plays a Chinese instrument, the pipa, exquisitely.  “In China, life as a pipa player is very limited,” she said. “The road is straight and predefined. You can't stray from it. There is a specific repertoire progression. I was supposed to become a faculty member. Everything was too easy.”  As the New York Timesmakes clear, she has been able to work with all manner of artist, constantly experimenting with a truly diverse repertoire. Philip Glass, the modernist composer, has authored several works for her.  She has, in turn, been able to bring her enriched vocabulary back to China and influence pipa performers there.

The World’s Top Woman Business Journalist. Until recently Hu Shuli was editor of Caijing, a business magazine that broke a succession of stories involving corruption and scandal.  Certainly it was China’s most fearless publication. Government leaders had pressured top management to tone down the articles and to submit to censorship. Shuli has pushed stories the Government wanted to suppress, such as fierce reporting on the SARS outbreak in 2003. As her bosses caved in to officialdom, she has moved on, with the view of creating another publication and continuing her crusading journalism.

Where Angels and Men Fear to Tread. What we are seeing, hither and thither, is a determination in strong-willed women to go places where men won’t set foot. In the process they are changing the world, often unnoticed by the media. The little revolutions they start are not quite noticed, but, collectively, are creating the world of tomorrow.

Curiously, a much lesser journalist than Ms. Shuli—Maureen Dowd of the New York Times—asks the million-dollar question. Her columns are over-written, trying too hard to inspire snickers and know-it-all cynicism in her readers. Clever by too far.

Her book is entitled Are Men Necessary? Yes, they are. But, as she asks this question, we realize that men seem increasingly impotent when compared with the Dragon Ladies who have started to roam the earth and reshape societies.  The male sex may not be well adapted to the kind of world that is emerging. Strategically, it makes sense for us to mobilize more women warriors, since they may have more luck surmounting some of the barriers to health and happiness that have been devised by modern man. They would appear to be a resource in waiting.  And, for sure, they are already much greater force in world events than one would surmise from the headlines in the world’s newspapers.

P.S. Men, not women, have had the ax fall on them more often during the recent recession-depression. Ostensibly there are now more women on the payroll than men. They’re often employed in sectors that have shown more resilience during the downturn. Men lack some of the skills necessary for survival in developed societies.

P.P.S. The version of the healthcare reform bill emerging from the House of Representatives includes the Stupak Amendment, which amounts to a severe intrusion on the rights of women.  It’s an anti-abortion plank that could drive abortion provisions out of all health insurance, public and private. Whatever one’s beliefs, this amounts to an unwarranted intrusion into women’s affairs.

P.P.P.S.  Neda Soltani is not a rare example. “Not so long ago, assertive, politically aware women were an isolated minority.  This is no longer true.  Even traditional people like Negin’s mother are revising their loyalties.  And the middle tier of Iranian society has become urgently politicized---activists whose goal, an end to tyranny, is now clear.  Half that tier is women.”  “Veiled Threat,” New Yorker, October 5, 2009, p.43. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Castro’s Communist regime treats everybody equally. That is-- badly. It beats both its men and women. “Youani Sanchez, Cuba’s most prominent dissident blogger, was walking along a Havana street last Friday along with two other bloggers and a friend when two men she says were Cuban agents in civilian clothes forced her inside an unmarked black car and beat her, telling her to stop criticizing the government.”  Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2009, p. A14. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  As we have suggested on more than one occasion, culture itself is the international language that easily finds its way around the world, remaking humankind in its wake. It tends to slip over borders marked by barbed wire and iron or bamboo curtains. Inversely, countries whose cultural infrastructure is declining, particularly from the onslaught of digital devices, such as the iPod or TV, are increasingly becoming more divorced from global ideas.

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