I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, in large part because of the breathtaking dearth of the quality that has become painfully evident post-Katrina. Leadership. It is one of those quaint, modern words, like “character” or “truth,” ones that possess little currency in a post-modern age.
Thinking about it, I envision a world in which men wear fedoras and women brandish silver cigarette holders, one that is fondly remembered but very much gone. Saying it out loud, I find myself sounding uncannily like Jimmy Stewart. Still, although we don’t actually believe in it, we do seem to notice it when it isn’t there. It may be that leadership is best defined antonymically: i.e., it is that which is not cowardice, irresponsibility, or blatant self-interest. It may also be that it is akin to pornography: i.e., you know it when you see it.
It is, in any case, a deeply gendered term. Men demonstrate, or, more often, fail to demonstrate, leadership. Women... well, women do other things. They serve. They inspire. They manage. Most commonly, they endure. But somehow, they don’t quite lead, at least, not in this language. This is, perhaps, because leadership is not unrelated to heroism, both being character traits that lie dormant until they are occasioned by circumstance, and it is not terribly often that circumstances favour women in this way.
Think of the difference between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Clinton is, it is generally agreed, a competent politician, a capable senator, and a reasonably skilled orator. However, Giuliani is—or, rather, he became—a leader. Both occupied important political positions on September 11, 2001, but Clinton did not emerge from that surreal day a national hero. Giuliani did. Why?
This is, of course, a largely rhetorical question. Nevertheless, I will suggest that women in the political sphere are caught between two contradictory imperatives: the personal imperative to prove oneself as a leader, and the political imperative to preserve one’s femininity at all costs. Would Clinton’s handlers have allowed her to set off for Ground Zero, without her make-up properly applied and her hair expertly coiffed, while debris still rained down from the Twin Towers? What if she came off as pushy? What if she got hurt? What if she looked haggard in front of the TV cameras?
Lest you think that this is a uniquely American phenomenon, I ask you to consider the Canadian case. Can you think of a single female Canadian politician who could roll up her shirtsleeves at a disaster site and not appear completely ridiculous? Kim Campbell? Nope. Belinda Stronach? Not a chance. Audrey McLaughlin? Who?
My point is not that women aren’t capable of leadership (plainly, they are) or that men are, as a group, intrinsically better leaders (plainly, they are not), but that the kind of leadership that is considered acceptable for a woman of the political class to publicly demonstrate is distinctly unheroic. Which is unfortunate, ‘cause we could sure use a few heroines right about now.