Supremo sacrifices

Beyond the Double Bind
November 24, 1995

Women, argues Kathleen Hall Jamieson, face a series of dilemmas - "double binds'' - in which whatever choice they make will be condemned. If a woman is a full-time wife and mother, her neighbour at dinner will assume she has nothing interesting to say. If she has a full-time occupation, either she has ruthlessly cut off the life of feeling and emotion or else she neglects her children and exploits her husband.

Jamieson pursues the double bind analogy from womb/brain and femininity/competence to ageing/invisibility through many reiterative pages, studded with quotations from every historic age and every part of the globe. Women are reminded of the disdain of the ancient Greeks and the vindictiveness of the early Christian fathers and their Puritan successors. Here is much evidence that women are "other", Simone de Beauvoir's second sex.

The modern world, even in the West, has not entirely put such bigotry behind it. Most, maybe all, public and professional women experience the phenomenon of being invisible; the judge, barrister, member of parliament, minister, managing director or chairman is someone other than the female you. Language, more in Britain than in the United States, assumes invisibility too: "he" for he and she, "mankind" for humankind, "chairman" for the presiding officer. I once thought such usage unimportant, but I was wrong. It exemplifies the same mindset shown in one of Jamieson's most telling examples, the 1968 American experiment replicated in 1985 in which identical essays received consistently lower grades from both men and women examiners if they were attributed to a female rather than to a male.

Jamieson uses her own specialty, communications, to argue that women in public life are impaled on the horns of these dilemmas. She describes, at somewhat wearisome length, the storm in a teacup that blew up over Hillary Clinton's pained response to charges by former governor Jerry Brown that Bill Clinton had used his position as governor of Arkansas to get business for his wife's firm. "I've done the best I can to lead my life," Mrs Clinton said. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."

Mrs Clinton epitomises the double bind theory. For many professional women and for feminists, she is an icon, the president's equal partner. For many men, especially southern whites, she is everything they detest. Parodied as a dominatrix and castrator, she provides them with yet another reason to abandon the Democratic party, the party of the old Confederacy.

Jamieson disputes Susan Faludi's proposition in her 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, that women's gains in the 1960s and 1970s have been whittled away. Faludi is certainly too pessimistic. But that there has been a backlash is hard to deny. Protected by laws against discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, women in professional and managerial positions have been less damaged by the backlash than their poorer sisters. The viciousness of congressional proposals to cut all welfare benefits to unmarried teenage mothers, whatever their circumstances, can be attributed in part to this backlash. Male employees in the United States have seen their wages decline in real terms since 1973. The expectations and their status have diminished. The women's revolution, coinciding with this relative economic decline among blue-collar and white-collar workers, has become a scapegoat for their resentment.

The advance of women towards equality has been incremental in the US and in Western Europe. Since female suffrage, there have been no great leaps like Kemel Ataturk's emancipation of women in Turkey or India's recent constitutional amendment requiring a third of the places in local government to be reserved for women. Progress has been slow towards that critical mass, estimated by Jamieson at 15 per cent to 25 per cent, by others at a third, where the culture of masculinity is replaced by a new androgynous culture valuing both male and female characteristics.

That culture is consensual rather than adversarial, seeks to resolve conflicts rather than pursue them, and prefers wide consultation and flattened hierarchies to command management. It is a culture in which leadership styles are adapted to the nature of the problem to be resolved, rather than by imposing a solution from above.

Jamieson contributes thoughts on the reframing of ideas and the reclaiming of language to this prospect of a more balanced and tolerant culture, but beyond that has little to say about it. She writes convincingly, if not very originally, about the double binds from which women suffer. But in a world wrenched by conflicts of every kind, the contribution women can make to new educational, political and managerial initiatives that may ease or reconcile them offers a more radical response to their double binds than mulling over, once again, women's historic handicaps.

Baroness Shirley Williams is professor of politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership

Author - Kathleen Hall Jamieson
ISBN - 0 19 508940 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 283

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