Women Deserve More Than Soft Power
We tell women to achieve their goals by charming the men around them — but charm is just helplessness with a positive spin
We are living through a historical moment obsessed with female power. The long-prophesied “blue wave,” after all, is primarily a wave of women: the middle-aged women who are plunging into anti-Trump activism; the black women who are stepping up to steer the Democratic Party; the angry women who made the Women’s March the largest single-day protest in history; the suburban white women who are supposedly abandoning Donald Trump (don’t hold your breath on that one); and, of course, the Democratic women now running for office.
We are currently testing the extent to which American women control public life. Yet even now, we remain profoundly uncertain about what female power is — how women should exercise it or whether they should want it or what it looks like. Which is why, somewhere in the furious hail of think pieces about women and the midterms, there was bound to be a headline exactly this silly: “What if women went on a sex strike before the midterms?”
The article in question was published Friday on CNN by author Wednesday Martin and argues, essentially, that if women didn’t have “service sex” just to appease men’s needs, structural misogyny would crumble and men would be cowed into voting blue. “It’s time for a revolution. At the polls, and in the bedroom,” it declares. The relationship between these two goals is, to be charitable, unclear.
I have some sympathy for Martin, who appears to be undergoing the obligatory authorial humiliation of pinning a deeply felt, well-researched piece of her book (“lots of women have sex with men when they don’t feel like it”) to some timely but wildly unsuitable news hook (“don’t have sex with your husband, and maybe he’ll pretend not to hate immigrants”). Of course, if your husband is both a lousy lay and a Republican, your best option is probably divorce, which is not so much a sex strike as it is a sex termination of contract. And, presumably, not all women are having sex with male conservatives; I pity the liberal couples forced into hostile celibacy so they can mutually guilt-trip each other about Beto O’Rourke.
We blame adult women for every horrible thing that happens to them, and yet we call women demanding and pushy for trying to stay in control of their lives.
Still, the idea that women can exert a kind of ambient mind control — not through access to positions of power and not through any real engagement with the political process but simply and wholly through being objects of someone else’s desire — is bigger and more harmful than one silly think piece.
I read Martin’s essay hours after catching up on another slow-burn gender story: At a public charter school in Leland, North Carolina, a group of three mothers has been suing for over two years for their daughters’ right to wear pants to school. The girls and their mothers want to change the school’s dress code for simple, commonsense reasons — pants are warmer in winter, and girls can’t play sports or run around on the playground at recess without worrying their skirts will blow up and embarrass them. In 2016, more than 100 students signed a petition asking for the dress code to be changed. Unfortunately for these practical children, Charter Day School is run by “conservative entrepreneur” Baker Mitchell, whose ideas about clothing are tinged with more than a little magical thinking. Specifically, he told one mother, Bonnie Peltier, that the skirt policy would prevent school shootings.
The Huffington Post reported that Mitchell sent an email explaining his decision to Peltier, noting “Mitchell linked the dress code to the Columbine school shooting, which he pointed out happened the year before Charter Day’s founding. He told Peltier that some of the victims were female.” His school has insisted on traditional gender roles, which include the skirts: “Charter Day’s founders were ‘determined to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men in this school of choice,’ Mitchell wrote to Peltier. Young men should hold doors open for young ladies and even carry umbrellas for them, he said.”
The only way to keep your child from picking up a gun, apparently, is to train him to go on a date in the 1920s. This seems impractical — if chivalry and old-timey clothing were a deterrent to violence, the Middle Ages wouldn’t have had so many wars and inquisitions — but the overriding logic of female power still holds. As adults, women are supposed to prevent men from voting against their interests by withholding sex. As children, they’re supposed to prevent boys from murdering them by wearing the right outfits.
Women’s power, as we’ve been taught to understand it, is soft power — indirect, relational, and a matter of manipulating men into making the right decisions rather than actually making any decisions oneself. A woman is supposed to radiate a force field of likability that civilizes the men around her and prevents them from being abusive or misogynist. But, of course, another name for “soft power” is “helplessness.” If your success depends on charming another person out of hurting you, you do not have power; the person you need to charm has power over you.
This doesn’t mean that it is better to scream and demand and threaten your way through life — no one likes a bully — but it does mean that your existence and safety should not be contingent on getting the whole world to like you. Yet this is the responsibility we hand women from the time they’re very young: Refuse to sleep with your boyfriend if you want him to respect you; don’t go to parties if you don’t want your friends to rape you; don’t give your husband a blow job if you don’t want him to defund Planned Parenthood; wear a skirt, or a boy may feel threatened enough to kill you; don’t reach for power, or we’ll slap you down, but keep every man in your life in line at all times if you want to live.
We treat girls and women as both unimaginably powerful and inherently unsuited for power — we act as if six-year-old girls are capable of converting mass murderers into productive citizens, but we won’t elect grown women to Congress to work on gun control. We blame adult women for every horrible thing that happens to them, and yet we call women demanding, pushy bitches for trying to stay in control of their lives. We tell women that they couldn’t handle real power, but we also tell them they don’t need it — what do women want with congressional seats or Supreme Court appointments or a voice in shaping policy if they could just compel men to do the right thing with good manners?
Of course, people are confused. But if nothing else, the past year has clarified that manners are irrelevant. The power that women are reaching for is not indirect or subtle. It’s the same power currently afforded to men — not necessarily ruthless or abusive or selfish but not soft or ephemeral either. We want a say in the decisions that will affect our lives. We want representation, and we want seats in the courts and legislatures and meeting rooms where the world’s future is laid out because we will have to live through that future. We don’t want to form Machiavellian sex plans in order to get someone to vote for humane immigration policy or pre-existing-condition coverage or the Violence Against Women Act. We just want to vote ourselves.
Power isn’t hard to understand or define. Power is the ability go out and get what you want rather than hoping someone gets it for you. Women have been amassing that power for some time now. On Tuesday, we’ll see what it’s worth.