Women Donâ€™t Fear Power. Power Fears Women.
Reading about the abrupt firing of Jill Abramson, along with the resignation of Le Monde’s Natalie Nougayrède, was like watching a ripple of misogyny move through the air in slow motion. Similar, in fact, to watching the slow, then fast, build to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s removal from office. There’s no way to examine these situations and ask, “Do women fear power and success?” Instead, the question is, “Why are powerful and successful women so feared?”
In their former positions, both Abramson and Nougayrède were notable firsts. Abramson was the first woman to head The New York Times as executive editor, and Nougayrède the first to be both editor-in-chief and director at French newspaper Le Monde. Both women, whose tenures have been prematurely cut short, are paying the price for our very gendered ideas about power and leadership. Because they are women with power, all Abramson and Nougayrède had to do in the morning to be disruptive was get out of bed.
They are counter-cultural, by definition. Both are experienced, accomplished, powerful, strong-willed, assertive, decisive and display–likeable or not–leadership qualities. Both were in the isolated position that most women with authority find themselves in. Both were navigating the high pressures of their professional lives while simultaneously challenging everyone’s embedded notions of gendered behavior.
Women in leadership, the relatively scant few, learn to adapt to the double bind that necessitates them rejecting much of what they were taught to think and be as females. Most girls, even those with egalitarian-minded parents, learn to put others first, to defer to dominant male speech in the public sphere, to cede physical space to not be disruptive. These are not valued characteristics or behaviors in most competitive, male-dominated work places. Women who do transcend their gender socialization and exhibit confident authority are inevitably penalized.
It’s in our imagery and in our language. The words we associate with power are “male”–assertive, authoritative, decisive. Women are scolds, nagging, shrill, difficult, opinionated, bossyugly, aggressive, temperamental, pushy and more. Oh, did I leave out brusque? Sorry.
Some people think that our “problems with women,” power and status are an “historic remnant of gender discrimination.” We aren’t living with remnants, we’re wrapped, bound and immobilized like mummies. The elimination of these two women from the paper-thin ranks of women in media leadership is a real loss.
When she was Prime Minister of Australia, Gillard came to international attention as the result of a speech she made excoriating another politician for his sexism and misogyny. The speech resulted in an actual change in the Macquarie Dictionary of the definition of the word “misogyny” from “hatred of women” to include “entrenched prejudice of women.” No matter which definition you choose, and whether you locate the obstacles in explicit or implicit bias, the systemic exclusion of women from positions of power and leadership is a defining characteristic of misogyny.