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The Devil Wears Pantsuits: Gender and the Exercise of Power

Shirley J. Wilcher

In the movie, "The Devil Wears Prada," Meryl Streep's character, the CEO of a major fashion magazine, is nasty, surly, vindictive, impatient and brilliant. She manages by intimidating her necessarily size-four staff, "clacking" with their four inch heels to her every whim. Her male assistant tolerates her fits of temper until he can happily ascend to leadership in his own firm. The question is, "Does she have to manage her staff in that manner? Is being nasty an effective leadership style?"

Fast forward to the current presidential race, where, for the first time in American history, a woman is competitively vying for the presidency against an African-American man and a white male Republican nominee. How does the woman prove to the electorate that she is as strong as a man and can be trusted to pull the trigger whenever required? Stated more specifically, does Hillary Clinton have to act "tough" to gain respect from the electorate? My answer is a resounding, but measured "No."

At the ABC-sponsored debate led by George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson, Senator Clinton chose to pile on to Republican attacks linking Rev. Jeremiah Wright to her opponent and insinuate that he was associated with a fellow board member who was once a member of the Weather Underground. The New York Times criticized Senator Clinton's campaign tactics in an editorial titled, "the Low Road to Victory." While the Times endorsed the Senator as presidential candidate, it bemoaned the "mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests" that had been run in Pennsylvania and before. The editorial continued:

On the eve of this crucial primary, Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. A Clinton television ad -- torn right from Karl Rove's playbook -- evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," the narrator intoned.

Boasting that she was better equipped to handle the demands of a dangerous world, Senator Clinton also claimed that if Iran attacked Israel under her watch, "We would be able to totally obliterate them." The latter remarks are not only cause for concern, they are cause for alarm.

As a deputy assistant secretary in a small, but important civil rights agency, I had my first experience with the exercise of power over a male-dominated senior staff with much more experience in the field than I. Like the lead character in Prada I first believed that to take and keep control, I had to be surly sometimes, nasty, even loud when I was not heard by my male subordinates. I also had difficulty listening when I was busy being "in charge." This was very taxing and I found that my staff became more alienated in the process. However, I eventually learned a lesson about power that few women get to learn: you do not have to display your power in order to wield it.

I found it interesting that wherever I sat at our oval-shaped table, the male managers would follow me and sit around me. If I moved, they moved too. More importantly, if I made a decision, and made it clear that I had made the decision -- that was the end of the matter. I realized that I did not have to constantly repeat myself and I did not have to yell. Like the CEO in Prada, who never raised her voice, I realized that it was I who had the power. That was enough. That "intangible sense of authority" radiates from within. It does not have to be broadcast.

It is my hope that Senator Clinton, if elected, will learn how to recognize and use her power, calmly and with confidence. No one is expecting her to be the surly and vindictive CEO in Prada, or her husband, the former president, or even Margaret Thatcher. They are certainly not expecting her to obliterate anything unless the circumstances absolutely demand it.

A president does not have to be a "man"; she has to be a leader.

Shirley J. Wilcher was deputy assistant secretary for federal contract compliance, U.S. Department of Labor, from 1994 to 2001. She is currently executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action in Washington, DC.

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