In 2002 PBS released a documentary entitled, “If Women Ruled the World: A Washington Dinner Party.” Filmed in 1999 in the Senate caucus room on Capitol Hill, the documentary was hosted by Canada’s first female prime minister, Kim Campbell. Among the 19 guests were Campbell; Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and co-founder of the National Organization for Women; Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court; Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, who retired in 2000 as the U.S. Army’s highest ranking female; and Wendy Shalit, the post-feminist author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Anyone who objectively viewed this documentary could tell Ms. Shalit’s opinions were censored. Later I found out the producer set up a private interview with Ms Shalit before the dinner. What Shalit describes is a conflict between two identities that appear to be radically opposed to each other. Remember the word “appear.”
Wendy Shalit describes this conflict as follows: “We were about to set a time when, to my surprise, the producer began to explain what he wanted me to say: that a certain second-wave feminist (another guest) had saved womankind and that I, as a young woman, was grateful to her. Well, I told him, I couldn’t exactly say that, as I didn’t agree with this woman’s idea that housewives were “parasites” or with a number of other things she had written…I myself did want to get married and didn’t see my inability to cook as an advantage. “What you’re saying,” he sputtered into the phone, “isn’t in the script!” “Oh, excuse me,” I replied. “I didn’t realize there was a script — I thought we had all been invited to express our different opinions in our capacity as ‘powerful women.’”
As Ms. Shalit wrote in Girls Gone Mild, the book she published after the documentary, there is a script that, in her opinion, needs rewriting. “To me it was an allegory for the experience of being a young woman in today’s society. In many small ways, usually a bit more subtle than this producer’s behavior, we are notified that we must ‘liberate’ ourselves by disrobing, ‘empower’ our sexuality by being indiscriminate in our choice of partners, and strive to see other women primarily as sexual competitors. But for many of us, we soon learn that this path requires repressing our ideals.”
In 2004 Allison Keiley, then a weekly columnist for Boston University’s Daily Free Press, wrote a review of the PBS documentary. “When I watched ‘If Women Ruled the World,’ I wondered what a man would have contributed had he been invited to the elite party.” The Women’s Leadership Challenge is a response to Ms. Keiley’s rhetorical invitation. The purpose is to help the next generation of women leaders understand the importance of misperception. Our view of the world is framed by customary and conventional ways of thinking. Our ability to make rational choices is limited, our mind’s eye, if you will, has a veil that hides a significant part of reality from our view. The scientific name for this veil is bounded rationality. Listen to Daniel Kahneman on The Trap of Thinking That We Know.
The female Marine pictured on this webpage does not resonate with many people. She doesn’t fit today’s customary and conventional role for women. There’s a disconcerting disconnect between what the eyes see and the bounded perspective or mental model of those who “know” what a woman ought to do with her life. At this very moment our nation is debating whether women should be allowed to serve in combat units. It is a debate that strikes at the heart of many people’s deepest beliefs and value systems. I do not claim to have the only answer to this argument. My purpose is to try to convince those of you who dislike the military, who categorically oppose any form of warfare, or who believe a women’s place is in the home, that your judgments may be wrong. It may also be true that your judgment about this woman’s choice is colored by unconscious psychological biases. I will try to persuade you that these psychological biases, in a globally interconnected world, not only threaten the security of our servicemen and women, but pose a threat to the future of every democratic republic.
Let’s begin by examining some ways of looking at the world that the participants in the PBS documentary did not discuss. I would like you to try four thought experiments that offer an alternative way for women to look at the world:
Thought Experiment #1
Imagine you are this Marine. Throughout her life she has listened in school and in the media to all the talking points scripted in this PBS documentary. They include the usual customary concerns: better childcare, equal wages, more women in politics, more women in governmental and corporate leadership positions. But this woman joined the Marine Corps and now her life is on the line in the Middle East. She is trying to maintain order in a culture that supports the public beating of women by their husbands, denial of education to girls, and execution of any woman raped by one or more men. The female Marine asks one question. Why didn’t the documentary discuss the perspective of these women?
Thought Experiment #2
In 2002, Amy Chua published a book in 2002 entitled World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The Economist considered it one of the best books of 2003. Is there any evidence Ms. Chua’s perspective entered into the dinner conversation? Why would a perspective like Ms. Chua’s be overlooked by western women who believe that democracy is the solution, and not the cause, of some of the world’s problems?
Thought Experiment #3
You live in one of several US cities where less than 20- 30% of the gunshots fired every evening are reported to the local police. You ask your fellow American women why they remain silent bystanders, and they tell you of their daily fear. Why didn’t the documentary discuss the perspective of these women?
Thought Experiment #4
By some sort of miracle you are able to talk with the 100 million women who were killed because of their gender, contributing to the global population gender gap discussed by Sheryl WuDunn in her TED lecture entitled, Our Century’s Greatest Injustice. Why didn’t the documentary discuss the perspective of these women?
If you want to learn why these extremely intelligent, successful women didn’t take a global view, the big picture if you will, of global issues critically important to most of the world’s women, then you are in the right place. The Women’s Leadership Challenge is custom made for you.