Wisdom Born of Pain

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Reviewed by Jennifer Howard
Sunday, April 13, 2008


By Dee Dee Myers

Harper. 280 pp. $24.95

If women truly want to rule the world, they will stop writing books with titles like Why Women Should Rule the World. Nobody outside the talk-show circuit is likely to take such a title seriously, and one suspects that the author herself does not. Despite imperial presidencies and plutocratic Supreme Courts, this is a democracy, after all, or some semblance of one. I guess "Women Are Different (Better?) than Men but Deserve the Same Opportunities" just didn't have a Venus/Mars pop-bestseller ring to it.

What Dee Dee Myers really wants is a level playing field, in the Title IX sense and beyond. So far, so good; feminist or not, you would have to be a miserable specimen of humanity to disagree with her.

She wants women to have an equal shot at equal time in the classroom, in the boardroom and in the marble halls of power. Those halls are Myers's particular turf. She served as Bill Clinton's press secretary during his first two years in the White House. She was the first woman to hold the job. She went on to cohost CNBC's "Equal Time" show. She consulted on Aaron Sorkin's poli-drama "The West Wing." Now she's a talking head for NBC and MSNBC.

As Myers points out at numbing length, genuine equality still looks remote. She drags out familiar stats to demonstrate how far we have to go: For instance, women make up 16 percent of the Senate and the House and only 2 percent of the nation's Fortune 500 CEOs. In most walks of life, my own field of journalism included, there have been and still are too few women occupying the corner offices.

Lowball salaries, subtle and not-so-subtle patronizing, workplace games that feel as if they have two sets of rules, one for men and one for women: The double standard is alive and well. That holds true even among the privileged classes that Myers is talking about, even in the circles inhabited by world leaders, CEOs, top-tier academics, prize-winning scientists and the media elite. It must be said that average Janes -- working-class and middle-class women -- don't have much of a place in Myers's analysis. If the ruling elite has it so rough, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Myers strings together so much familiar bad news that she could have called the book "Just Forget About Ruling the World Already, Ladies." It would be a better book if she spent less time arguing that women are just as capable as men, only different. It would be a stronger book if she didn't run from study to study in search of evidence about what women are, or what we aren't. It's not a memoir per se, but it would be a more useful book if she spent more time dissecting her own experiences in political life. In those sections, too few and too brief, she brings fresh material to a conversation that otherwise just circles back on itself.

What if women did rule the world? "We'd have more representative government; a stronger economy; and a healthier and more sustainable planet." Why? Because women are builders of consensus, nurturers of relationships. Oh, and we're talkers. We make peace, not war. Maybe it's true. Maybe it's a lot of gender-essentialist hooey. I went to an all-girls' high school; I've had female bosses. I know what women are capable of, for better and worse.

As if to prove her point about building relationships, Myers recruits other high-profile women as star witnesses. They include primatologist Jane Goodall, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, scientist and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, astronaut Sally Ride and Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius. Each of them has a resumé as long as your arm; each has struck a blow, in her way, for the sisterhood. Not one of them gets enough time in this book to do the same for Myers's argument.

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