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Guest Thinkers

Cleopatra’s Soft Power

One powerful woman picks up the phone. Thomas v. Hill, 2010. We now know that the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has called Anita Hill, after twenty years, seemingly to suggest a détente. Is this an act of faith? Is it classic feminine emotional intelligence, perhaps enhanced by a bit of Machiavellian self-preservation, sense of history? Is it all of these? We will be watch as it evolves. Critics will parse what might simply be one woman working to respect the emotions of another. That’s what women tend to do.

What might this phone call mean for women more broadly, and how does Thomas’s gesture stand separate from powerful gestures of powerful men in the past, specifically those actions they have taken towards enemies? Is the feminine instinct to couple Emotional Intelligence with strategic insight something that should lead us to conclude women make better leaders? Data, and feminists, would support that. But history refuses to be swayed—so far. So what can we learn from the greatest women in leadership positions in the past? Can their emotional intelligence be quantified? Who had it?

Here is an excerpt from the exchange between Deborah Solomon and Cleopatra biographer Stacy Schiff in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine:

How would you compare Cleopatra to Hillary Clinton? I wouldn’t. No one in the modern world controls the wealth or territory that Cleopatra did.

Are you forgetting the Queen of England? She doesn’t compare. Cleopatra essentially owned Egypt. Everyone in the country worked for her. And my guess is she had better jewelry.

She was so materialistic. Were you turned off by her need to bedeck herself in so much jewelry, including pearls in her hair? If you’re the Queen of Egypt, you need to look the part.

Said another way, no one has come close. And Cleopatra maintained her femininity without stooping to conquer. What made her tick? Schiff, a Pulitzer-Prize-winner author who has written one of the great biographies of another great woman (Vera Nabokov) knows. 

Would what Cleopatra had be called “soft power” today, those skills sometimes defined simply as diplomacy, or as Hearts and Minds? She (and her successors on the global stage, from Elizabeth I through Simone de Beauvoir to Secretary Clinton) understand what many feminists later codified: female power is not in competition with its male counterpary. Men use what they have; women use what they have. Secretary Albright had pins and Marie Antoinette had fashion. These kinds of signs and uses of power are not taught at Harvard, or osmosed at Davos. They are instinctual.

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson told Big Think that “women are actually more inclined towards that more modern leadership, which is collaborative problem-solving, enabling, consultative, not just trying to assert a kind of hierarchical power.” Collaborative, consultative: said another way, maternal? Whether we consider women who have held unique positions of power through time to be classically maternal, we might admit that they recognized femininity was not something to hide. The ability to read complex emotions is a diplomat’s best weapon, and this comparative advantage keeps women today not simply distinct from their male counterparts but essentially, and increasingly, in demand.


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