Friday, February 17, 2012

Women, Power, and Peace

In 1998, Francis Fukuyama argued in an article for Foreign Affairs that, as women gain access to power across the world, the world is becoming a more peaceful place.  The "democratic peace," Fukuyama suggested, may in fact be a consequence of the feminization of politics.  He noted that "developed democracies . . . tend to be more feminized than authoritarian states, in terms of expansion of franchise and participation in political decision-making.  It should therefore surprise no one that the historically unprecedented shift in the sexual basis of politics should lead to a change in international relations."

Today, in a column published online by Aljazeera, Harvard professor and former assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye considers whether a world run by women would be a more peaceful place.  Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, he notes, has argued in a recent book (Better Angels of Our Nature) that "over the long sweep of human history, women have been and will be a pacifying force."  Nye, endorsing this view, suggests that the connection between women and peace may be due in part to differences between women and men in leadership style:  "Women's non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge-based organisations and groups that men, on average, are less well prepared to meet."

Notwithstanding the potential advantages that women bring to the table as leaders, there remains a large gender gap when it comes to access to power in the political, economic, and social realms.  Women today hold only 5 percent of the world's top corporate positions.  Over the course of the 20th century, just 27 of 1,941 rulers of independent states were female.  Often, when women have been in positions of power, they  have been forced to adopt more masculine leadership styles (and foreign policies).  (Think Margaret Thatcher, currently being portrayed by Meryl Streep in Iron Lady.)

Progress has occurred at a glacial pace, but when we look at certain benchmarks in the not-too-distant past we can find reason for optimism.  In 1900, no country in the world allowed women to run for elective office at the national level.  Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in the United States, was elected in 1916.  (She remains the only woman ever elected to Congress from Montana.)  Today, wherever men can vote, women have won the right to vote as well (with women's suffrage in Saudi Arabia coming in 2015).

The future, in all likelihood, belongs to women.  And that is probably a good thing for all of us.