There are weeks like this one when I'm busy with other things and don't know what to write about, but I generally count on the morning papers to give me an idea. Today is not exception. The op-ed page of the New York Times features a piece, "Our Problem with Powerful Women," by Bryce Covert, a journalist (and, if you're wondering, a woman), which exemplifies, for me, a huge problem with one strain of modern liberalism. In case you can't access the piece or don't want to take the time to do so (although I wish you would), I'll summarize.
Covert begins by quoting Hillary Clinton's concession speech in 2008 (evidently a painful moment for both of them) to the effect that while the glass ceiling around the White House remained in place, it now had about 18 million cracks (presumably the number of votes she had received in primaries),. and the day when it would fall was coming nearer. Covert notes that Congress is still only 20% female, which clearly troubles her, but spends most of her time talking about trends at the highest levels of the corporate world. Progress getting women onto corporate boards, she notes, has been slow,and although women have been appointed as CEOs, this frequently happens only when a company is in serious trouble, not when times are flush. She assumes, without any evidence that the reason for this is simple: America remains uncomfortable with powerful women. I am not sure exactly how true that is, and much of the proportional disparity may have to do with other factors, but I will leave those issues to others, and focus on two broader points, one which her article suggests, and one which she, like so many proponents of affirmative action, completely ignores.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, white males, most, but not all, of them Protestants, made up all of our corporate leadership. But they did not enjoy that position because they were in league with one another to ensure all the greatest benefits of society for themselves--they found themselves there because of long-term developments in human society and human history going back Millennia, which had made the workplace largely the province of men. More importantly for my purposes today, however, no one because a CEO because he was a white male, any more than today, anyone plays major league baseball because he was a man. They became CEOs because of particular abilities and ambition that they had demonstrated during their careers. No one thought about race and gender when selecting them--those were givens. To demonstrate a related point in another way, in one of the greatest films of the 1950s, Twelve Angry Men, all the jurors are white males. But some, clearly, are good guys and some are bad guys. Goodness and badness, in short, has nothing to do with race or gender--but with the content of your character.
Covert, on the other hand, seems to assume that women must be entitled automatically to an equal share of corporate power and that only a conspiracy of some kind could be keeping them out of it. This assumption has become orthodoxy in liberal circles over the last few decades, nowhere more than in the academy. And that is why she regards the appointment of women as CEOs of companies in trouble not as an opportunity, but as a conspiracy to discredit women even more. "Not all of us can engineer stunning turnarounds," she writes--but the only people who should take over a struggling country, whatever their gender,. race or sexual preference, should be people who welcome exactly that challenge. Covert does not seem to regard high-level positions as things that men and women earn by their performance, but sees them more like medieval church livings which are handed out through networking. There is of course some truth to that view too, but is it really one that we want to encourage?
This, however, is not my biggest objection to the piece. I am reminded of a wonderful exchange, during the debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, between a southern Senator who owned slaves and free soil advocate Ben Wade of Ohio. The Senator spoke at length about his bond with hs "old black Mammy," and asked Wade, in heartfelt fashion, why he would want to prevent him from taking his "old black Mammy" to the Kansas or Nebraska territory with him. "It is not that he cannot take the old black Mammy with him that troubles the mind of the Senator," Wade replied, "but that if we make the territories free, he cannot sell the old black Mammy when he gets her there." And that is my real objection to Covert's piece: she wants more women on corporate boards, but she doesn't seem to care what they will do when they get there.
The United States is in serious trouble today because of excessive wealth and power in the corporate world. In my not very humble opinion, we're not in trouble because there aren't enough women on the boards of Goldman Sachs, big Pharma, Exxon, and the food industry, we're in trouble because of what the people on those corporate boards are dong to us, And if there is any evidence that women holding corporate power are doing anything different with it than men, I am quite unaware of it. Forty years ago feminists made exactly this argument: that because women were less competitive, predatory,and cutthroat than men, their rise to power would change society for the better. I would love to think that was true, but I can't see any evidence that it is. Nor, on the whole, is there much evidence that women have changed politics. Conservative Republican politicians are at least as visible and powerful as liberal Democratic ones, particularly among the younger generation. The last woman on a national ticket was Sarah Palin. In at least one key election in the last 20 years--in 2002, when the Republicans regained control of the Senate--female Republican candidates did much better than female Democratic ones. Women play critical roles on both sides of the abortion debate.
Last year, at my 45th college reunion, I had a conversation with a classmate who is concerned that there are still too few women in academia. When I indicated that I was not so concerned, she said, "You don't think women should be in academia?" I assured her that that was not what I thought, but that I thought that a lack of women was not one of academia's major problems at the moment. Of course I agree that women deserve an equal chance in the corporate world, but I'm much more concerned about the values of the corporate world. And until we start focusing on what our institutions are doing, instead of the gender and race of the people in charge, neither the men, nor the women, nor the minorities and gays who are not lucky enough to reach corporate boards will be able significantly to improve their chances in life.