Democracy Empowers Ignorance

I want to preface this by saying that I deeply admire the columns of Nicholas Kristof: he has championed the issues of the most powerless people on Earth, women and girls living in poverty and often in slavery. He has done more to call attention to those souls suffering needlessly and too-invisibly than most others in his line of work, and is one of the few who keep me coming back to the New York Times' op-ed pages day after day (Gail Collins, Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert round out the list).

Yet even I, as much a "fan" as a hard-news columnist is likely to get (without getting scared), had a hard time swallowing his twin observations that (1) women leaders are historically superior to male leaders, but (2) only in monarchies.

While no woman has been president of the United States — yet — the world does have several thousand years’ worth of experience with female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record puts men’s to shame. [...] Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China, Isabella of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria. [...] women who climbed to power in monarchies had an astonishingly high success rate. Research by political psychologists points to possible explanations. Scholars find that women, compared with men, tend to excel in consensus-building and certain other skills useful in leadership. In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to navigate public prejudices — and these make democratic politics far more challenging for a woman than for a man.
First, I'm having trouble buying that women have made better despots than men (unless by this you mean that they must be 10 times the despot to be considered half the despot, in which case...), but second, the idea that (my beloved!) Democracy might actually be harder on women's fortunes than (my despised!) Monarchy? Yeegads! Just butcher my sacred cow while she's still mooing, and feed her to schoolkids!

Kristof backs this up with some of the most irksome information that we already know:

In one common experiment, the “Goldberg paradigm,” people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman. Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.

In particular, one lesson from this research is that promoting their own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments, that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are.

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts.

The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.

So the argument is essentially that democracy subjects women to more of these kinds of wrong-headed judgments. That Democracy (as my title says) empowers ignorance. It hurts to admit, but he's right. He follows this with some non-hypotheticals that hit hard:
An M.I.T. economist, Esther Duflo, looked at India, which has required female leaders in one-third of village councils since the mid-1990s. Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes.

Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to result from simple prejudice. Professor Duflo asked villagers to listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much lower marks when it was given by a woman.

The suggestion here is that in a monarchy or oligarchy or similar, the woman has fewer prejudiced people to sway or conquer. He doesn't quite suggest that the smelly masses might be more sexist than the elite, but that suggestion is a mere step away, as the assumption generally goes the poorer the less educated, and the less educated the more prejudices. And in fact it seems always to be the poorest and least educated parts of the world where women are regarded as chattel, and where "disenfranchisement" is a gross understatement.

I've quoted this passage from Ralph Ellison before: "Our lives are a war. And I have been a traitor every one of my born days. A spy in the enemy's country." (Or something like that. I'm going by memory.) I know he wrote this about being black in America at the start of the 20th Century; nonetheless I quote it because I feel it about being a woman on Earth at the start of the 21st. As a woman, I feel we are all engaged every day in a war, a just war, to win equality. Yet every day we live in "the enemy's" world. Worse, we love the enemy, we love his DWEMs and their poetry and their philosophy and their art. We want to win the war without destroying the world we love. So it's a slow war. And sometimes we have to keep losing in order to win.


Maureen Reagan:
I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there.

Let me make my thoughts explicit: if Hillary Clinton is not the next president, that's not a loss for women. Her whole candidacy has been a win in this long, slow war. She's not my ideal candidate, but it isn't equality until the candidates with ovaries get all the same "passes" that the candidates with testes get.

I don't doubt my granddaughters (if I have any) will be dodging sexism just like I am today. (I just hope it will be a very lessened form of sexism.) This is a long, slow road. And I think the next president is going to look a lot more like Ralph Ellison than me -- that's okay; in fact, that's fucking awesome. We just got to keep this progress moving, always forward.

From the same study of Indian villagers:

Such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations, the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same as men. “Exposure reduces prejudice,” Professor Duflo suggested.

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